MIDDLEBURY — The top-seeded Middlebury Union High School girls’ lacrosse team scored the final five goals of Tuesday’s Division II semifinal to turn back a challenge from No. 4 Mount Mansfield, 15-10.
To no one’s surprise, the 13-2 Tigers will meet No. 2 South Burlington in the D-II final. In Tuesday’s other semifinal, the Rebels turned aside No. 3 Rutland, 17-12.
MUHS and SBHS (14-2) will meet at 5 p.m. on Friday at Castleton State College in what is a 2011 rubber match: The Tigers won at SBHS, 8-7 in overtime, on April 12, but the Rebels prevailed on the Middlebury College turf on May 13, 13-10.
The Tigers will be seeking the program’s eighth title and first since 2008; they lost in the final a year ago to Mount Anthony. The Rebels have won one D-I title, in 2007, and will be making the program’s fourth appearance in a final.
But before the Tigers could focus on the Rebels, they had to deal with a 12-3 MMU team that had been playing much better than the Cougar squad the Tigers dismantled on May 5, 17-3. Since then, the Cougars defeated the Rebels and outshot Rutland by a wide margin in a three-goal loss.
MUHS junior middie Chrissy Ritter, whose three scores included the go-ahead goal with 9:30 left and another goal that made it 13-10, credited the Cougars.
“We expected a tougher game, but I don’t know if we expected it to be that much tougher. They came hard,” Ritter said. “We just had to come harder back.”
Coach Kelley Higgins, who has led the Tigers to the top seed and a finals berth in her first year, said the Tigers made a technical change and an attitude adjustment to turn the game around. First, they altered their offensive approach in the second half to use more ball movement and patience on the attack.
“MMU just runs the ball down and shoots, so their D, that’s what they practice against,” Higgins said. “So we were trying to do that against them, and it wasn’t working. So we talked about that at halftime.”
Higgins also told the Tigers they were not working hard enough for the ball. After the break, they won more battles for ground balls and worked harder to, in lacrosse parlance, re-defend.
“As soon as we acted like we wanted the ball more it turned around,” Higgins said. “It came from everybody, the low attack acting like they wanted the ball and fighting back to get the ball when there was a turnover. Everybody turned it around.”
Critically, in that late run, the Tigers controlled the draw six straight times. After the first half ended at 8-8, the Cougars won the first four draws of the second half, and the teams traded the first four goals. Katie Ritter (four goals, two assists) gave the Tigers a 9-8 lead, but Emma Oliver tied the score at 9-9.
Then after Tiger goalie Maria Ploof (five saves) denied Halley Fisher, Liz Kelley put the Tigers on top at 14:53. But Fisher (three goals) picked the lower left corner from a free position at 11:16, and the game was tied for the fifth time.
Then the Tigers took charge. Cougar goalie Emily Jones (12 saves) stopped Chrissy Ritter and attacker Emily Robinson, but each time the Tigers retained possession. They worked the ball to Chrissy Ritter on a curl, and she converted high into the net at 9:30.
The Tigers won a wild scramble for the next draw when attacker Kiera Kirkaldy knocked it away from a Cougar to Chrissy Ritter. Jones stopped Katie Ritter, but the Cougar had no answer for the Tiger senior middie’s next shot, set up by a strong feed from the right side by Kelley. At 8:01 it was 12-10, and MMU called time.
It didn’t help. After another draw control Chrissy Ritter bolted in, drew a foul and converted a free position at 7:17. The Tigers again won the draw and ran the break. A pass went high, but went straight to junior middie Brandi Whittemore bolting down the right side. She went in alone for her game-high fourth goal, and it was 14-10 at 7:07.
A minute later Kelley added her third goal on a free position for the Tigers’ fifth goal in a span of 3:23.
Chrissy Ritter said both the renewed effort and change in approach paid off for the Tigers.
“The draws were a huge help. We just got momentum. We all got psyched and realized this was it, if we don’t win we’re done,” she said. “We just got it in, played hard, got the ground balls and everything just clicked. We worked together as a team.”
In the first half, Whittemore’s three goals and an assist sparked MUHS. Katie Ritter scored twice, and Hannah Quinn, Chrissy Ritter and Kelley added a goal each. MMU’s Kim Liberty and Kaleigh Heath scored three times each in the first half.
The Tiger low defense of Eva Pratt, Angelica Swinhart and Nikki Boudah tightened up in the second half, working with the midfielders to allow only five second-half shots on Ploof. Freshman middie Olivia Carpenter and sophomore middie Lily Rosenberg made key defensive plays.
The Tigers know the Rebels will be even tougher to handle, but Chrissy Ritter said they are looking forward to Friday.
“We’re feeling good. We just came from behind, and we just came back to win by five goals,” she said. “We’re ready.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]