MIDDLEBURY — The Mount Abraham Union High School field hockey team continued its revival season on Saturday, when the Eagles fought off a challenge from a shorthanded host Middlebury team and won, 2-0.
The Eagles improved to 7-2-1 and look to be in good shape for a top-four seed in Division II with both the semifinals and final to be played on neutral, artificial-turf fields.
They are in third place in D-II behind 10-0 U-32 and 8-0-1 Windsor, teams that have played only three games between them against D-I competition, while the Eagles have played all their games in the D-I Metro Conference.
Knowing they have played a tougher schedule will help the Eagles come playoff time, said junior midfielder and tri-captain Madi Wood, even if they are not sure what to expect from their D-II competition.
“We haven’t played any of our division’s teams, so we really don’t know what we’re up against,” Wood said. “But I think we’ll pull it off.”
Wood is part of a strong junior class, many of whom played on a strong JV team the past two seasons, that she said has blended well with the team’s veterans to play the possession game that Mount Abe coach Mary Stetson prefers.
“We improved a lot on our give-and-go passing and working together as a team,” said Wood. “And that’s really been the difference over the season.”
Stetson agreed that, as always, the Metro gauntlet should prepare her team for the playoffs, and that the passing game will be key.
“Obviously our strength is all of us working together, not just one person,” Stetson said.
Stetson also noted the 1-8 Tigers played hard. They forced her to call a first-half time out with aggressive play at midfield — senior Tiffany Danyow, sophomore Sophia Peluso and junior Kiera Kirkaldy did good work there — and late in the game freshmen Mikayla Humiston and Sara Kelley helped MUHS storm the Eagle goal.
“Give Middlebury credit. They always fought hard, I thought,” Stetson said.
The Tigers were missing one starter due to illness and two due to violations of team rules. Coach Kelley Higgins agreed her team — including four JV call-ups, all of whom saw action and played capably — matched the Eagles’ intensity.
“I’m proud of that, based on the turmoil of the week,” Higgins said.
But until those final few minutes, when Eagle goalie Lizzie Huizenga made a fine save on a Kelley bid and also denied Humiston, the Eagle defense — anchored by Anna Thompson, Ariana Perlee, Sarah Acker and Taylor Farnsworth — did not allow the Tigers good looks at goal.
And after Stetson called timeout at 15:29 of the first half, the Eagles began to apply pressure on the Tiger defense of Grace Boucher in the middle and Mychaella Devaney and Megann Watkins on the flanks. They piled up four penalty corners, and Wood and classmate Sam Reiss asserted themselves at midfield, with help from Thompson stepping up from the back.
Stetson’s message was not quiet, and it proved to be effective.
“She told us that we really needed to play Eagle hockey and that we really needed to work on staying composed and playing our game,” Wood said.
The Eagles broke through at 3:00. Wood sent a ball in to the right of the Tiger cage, and Sayles won a race for it with Tiger goalie Baily Ryan and rapped it home.
In the second half, the Eagles racked up nine unanswered shots before the Tigers’ late flurry, finally converting at 5:28, when Gabrielle Schlein knocked one in. Before then, Ryan (five saves) twice came out to deny Sayles, and Eagle right wing Sam Driscoll threatened steadily, once hitting the post.
Boucher, Danyow, Kirkaldy and Peluso disrupted four Eagle corners, and Boucher and Danyow broke up several other threats.
Higgins said while the Tigers played hard throughout, they showed more poise early on.
“I thought we played a stronger first half,” Higgins said. “We were making good adjustments defensively and we were replacing each other.”
But the Eagles, after listening to Stetson, did take charge.
“Middlebury was doing a great job of … cutting and beating us to the ball,” Stetson said. “We had the discussion that in order to win a game like this we had to have possession and beat them to the ball. But after that, it seemed to come together better.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.