MIDDLEBURY — The resurgent Middlebury Union High School boys’ lacrosse program hit a bump in the road on Saturday, when an inspired visiting Mount Mansfield squad snapped a halftime tie on the way to a 14-7 victory over the Tigers.
MUHS fell to 6-2 and out of first place in Division I, while the Cougars improved to a misleading 4-4. Other than suffering a one-sided loss to Essex, a fate suffered by every Vermont team the Hornets have faced, MMU’s other three losses have been by a total of four goals, all to teams with winning records, including an 11-10 setback to the Tigers.
MUHS coach Dennis Smith said the Tigers would have to accept Saturday’s game as a wake-up call.
“One team was ready to play, and the other team mentally not ready,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of things going on around here this weekend, prom and so on. I’m not saying that’s the issue, but I think it’s a lot of issues. All of a sudden a team is 6-1 and thinking maybe we’re better than we are right now. There’s a lot of tough teams out there, a lot of good competition, and you’ve got to be ready to play each and every day, no matter what the records are.”
Smith acknowledged the Tigers have done plenty right while winning six of their first seven, notably a solid defense and opportunistic scoring. But he said they might also have snuck up on some teams not expecting them to be so competitive.
Smith said the Tigers’ second half of their schedule will be full of rematches, like Saturday’s, against motivated teams that will not take them lightly.
His message? A full 48 minutes a game and hard work in every practice will be needed if the Tigers want to keep rolling.
“We had positives up to this point … but I think we were catching some teams off the mark,” Smith said. “Now the X is on us, because you know what, we were 6-1. Now everybody is looking at us and saying you know what, we’re bringing our A game. And that’s what these kids have got to be ready for each and every game from now on. Instead of us being the hunters, we’re the hunted.”
Certainly, the Cougars were on the prowl early on Saturday, outshooting MUHS by 11-2 in the first quarter and taking a 2-0 lead despite some good work by goalie Nathan Lalonde (10 saves) and the defense of junior Sam Smith and sophomores Justin Stone and Austin Robinson.
The MMU goals came from Paul Lavallee, on a nice feed from fellow middie Chris Walker in transition, and from Grayden Shand, a bomb from the high slot.
Lavallee (three goals) made it 3-0 by racing in after the Cougars won the second-quarter faceoff. Faceoffs were a problem for MUHS all day, as the Tigers won just three. The Cougars scooped 16 of 17 in the second half as they pulled away.
But the Tigers made a stand in the second period as the defense continued to hold and the Cougars also hit iron three times. At 4:06, junior attacker Sam Usilton converted a feed into the slot from senior attacker Christian Higgins; at 2:39 the Tigers got a man-up goal when Higgins took a long pass from sophomore middie Bobby Ritter and found the right side of the cage; and the Tigers equalized at 0:42, when Usilton swept in from the right side.
That 3-3 score stood at the half, but the Tigers, who already had lost sophomore attacker Connor Quinn for at least a couple weeks to a hand injury suffered in a May 6 win at Woodstock, got more bad news before the break when Ritter went down with a leg injury.
The Tigers’ depth certainly was tested, but Smith said that factor did not explain the second half.
“I’m not pointing fingers at injuries. We’re got guys who should have done things better than we did things today,” the coach said.
Immediately after the break, the Cougars got three goals on solo efforts in the first 2:45, two from Walker and the first of Carter Glenn’s three scores, to make it 6-3.
The Tigers hung close for a while. Senior middie Nick Leach scooped a ground ball and converted at 8:41, and after Glenn fired home a 25-footer through a crowd, Leach whipped home a 20-footer after taking a behind-the-net feed from Usilton. That strike came at 5:37 and made it 7-5, MMU, and the Tigers were in range.
Lalonde then stopped the Cougars’ Brooks Gay in transition, but the Tigers couldn’t hang onto the ball and soon afterward took a penalty. Lavallee capitalized with a 20-footer to make it 8-5 at 3:26, and in the final 2:25 of the quarter attacker Josh Walker made two strong moves to push the score to 10-5 after three periods.
“We finally answered in the second quarter, and then in the second half it was just downhill,” Smith said. “They put a couple in, and it was like the balloon was popped and we were done.”
Hopes for a comeback were dashed by two long solo runs, early in the fourth, one by Glenn off the opening faceoff win and one at 9:44 by Lavallee that made it 12-5. Travis Benson scored the final two Cougar goals, while Leach set up Usilton for a man-up strike and Nathan Wulfman tossed a Sam Smith feed past MMU goalie Kyle Merck (eight saves) in the final minute to account for the MUHS scoring.
The Tigers, who this week host BFA-St. Albans on Tuesday and play at Champlain Valley on Friday, remain in good position for a high playoff seed.
But Smith said if the Tigers are going to win their many rematches, starting with CVU, the Tigers will have to go back to what was working.
“That’s what I hope we can do, remember what got us to this point,” Smith said. “Sometimes we fall back on old bad habits, case in point today. If we don’t do the little things correctly, we’re going to have a hard time going through this lineup the second time through.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.