Hamstrung by COVID: Sports in 2020
Part one of two.
ADDISON COUNTY — The year 2020 in sports will be remembered in many ways for what didn’t happen, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Winter high school and college postseasons abruptly halted.
Spring seasons never started.
Summer? No American Legion Baseball. No Champlain Valley Swim League. No armwrestling, tractor pulling or demolition derby at Field Days.
Fall? No Middlebury College sports, and some athletes decided to take a gap year.
And Vermont high school athletes began practicing late and began playing later than expected. Masked athletes took to fields, trails and courses as the calendar flipped to October.
Winter? More uncertainty as the coronavirus surged and a start date kept moving.
Who could have predicted all that back in the beginning of 2000, when rumors first arrived of a mysterious disease and people in a Chinese city all wearing masks?
At this point, all we know for sure is 2020 started in:
In January we began to see where some teams and athletes were headed, but others were getting ready to surprise.
At Middlebury Union High School Tiger boys’ basketball began putting together another solid season, including wins in January over Mount Abraham, Vergennes and Otter Valley.
The Tiger girls’ hoop team bounced back a bit from a tough 2018-2019 season as a young core began to develop. But it turned into another losing campaign, nonetheless.
On Memorial Sports Center ice, the Tiger girls could beat anyone — except the top teams in Division I, and picked up solid wins like a 1-0 decision over South Burlington.
Tiger boys’ hockey kept at or just above .500 against a tough D-I schedule despite many injuries. An early-month highlight was a 2-1 overtime win vs. CVU in which senior Devon Kearns potted the shorthanded game-winner.
The Tiger boys’ Nordic team won the Tour de Chittenden, edging U-32. Tiger Jack Christner was the individual winner. The Tiger girls were middle of the pack, but Phoebe Hussey was fifth in the multi-day event.
Double-double machines Chloe Johnston and Grace Harvey had the Mount Abe girls’ hoop team looking like a potential contender.
The Mount Abe boys used a 14-0 run in a win at Vergennes, and led by senior Liam Kelliher the Eagles remained near .500 for most of the season. The VUHS boys struggled, however, and despite flashes from talented players like Kevin Jackson, never gelled.
The Commodore girls got off to an 0-3 start, but crested .500 by the end of the month by upsetting the Eagles as all 10 players contributed, a hallmark of the squad. Sadly, Grace Harvey tore her ACL in that game, an injury that proved costly for the gritty Eagles.
At Middlebury College, the 17-3 men’s basketball team was ranked in the top 10, and as the month closed the women’s hockey team had lost only to No. 1 Plattsburgh, with which the Panthers had split, and was ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division III.
The Vermont Sports Hall of Fame announced Carol Weston as an inductee. Weston was a multi-sport standout and champion track and field athlete at Mount Abe who then started for the University of New Hampshire hockey, track and soccer teams. She went on to coach the Cornell women’s hockey team for seven years, and is now a Vermont hockey and soccer official.
The Panther ski team won two straight carnivals, first at Bates and then at Williams, edging UVM both times.
In a boys’ hoop rivalry game, the Tigers got two free throws apiece from Jeffrey Lokatys and Karic Riche late in overtime in a 60-57 victory at Mount Abe. Liam Kelliher put in 19 points for the Eagles, and Tyler Buxton scored 20 for the Tigers as they rallied to force OT.
Mid-month the Eagle girls avenged their earlier loss to VUHS with a 43-37, double-OT win. Chloe Johnston and Abby Reen sank clinching free throws. The Commodores got 17 points from Felicia Poirier.
At the high school dance championship competition at VUHS, the Tiger team took third in the Hip Hop discipline.
The Panther men’s hoop team split two games in their final weekend of the regular season, costing themselves a home NESCAC game, and the next weekend they lost at Trinity in the NESCAC playoffs.
The VUHS boys’ indoor track team won four events and placed third in D-II championship meet, the program’s best finish at a state meet since 2004.
Ben Huston won at 1,000 meters and ran on the Commodores’ winning 4x400- and 4x800-meter relay teams. Senior Julio Quiles won the 300, finished second at 55 meters, and ran on the 4x400 team.
The Middlebury College women’s hockey team clinched the NESCAC regular season title and home ice for the league playoffs by sweeping two games from defending champion Williams.
The Tiger boys’ Nordic team fell just short of a state title: U-32 edged MUHS, 72-79.
Senior Jack Christner paced the Tigers. He won the classic race on the first day, his fourth-place freestyle finish was the team’s best, and he anchored the relay teams to victory on both days.
Elvis McIntosh, Zach Wilkerson and Will Carpenter skied with Christner on the classic relay team, and Lucas Palcsik, Wilkerson and Carpenter joined Christner in winning the classic relay.
The U-32 girls rallied past the Tiger girls’ Nordic team for the D-II girls’ title, 132-153.
Phoebe Hussey led the Tigers on both days, taking fifth in both disciplines and anchoring the Tigers’ second-place relay teams.
The Tiger boys’ hockey team celebrated senior night by defeating visiting South Burlington, 3-2, before a big crowd. Typifying the team’s campaign, three seniors watched with season-ending injuries: Kam Bartlett, Robbie Bicknell and Jeffrey Stearns. The Tigers finished at 11-9 and earned a No. 6 seed in D-I, but lost a first-round playoff game.
As February wound down, playoffs opened in other sports. The boys’ basketball playoffs did not go well. OV (3-17) did not qualify, and the 0-21 Commodores and the 8-12 Eagles each bowed out in the D-II first round.
The No. 6 Tigers in D-II fared best topping No. 11 Lamoille, 66-58, as Buxton notched 31 points and 15 boards, before falling at No. 3 Montpelier. Buxton scored 21 and added another 15 rebounds for the 12-10 Tigers.
The Panther men’s hockey team concluded its regular season with two wins over teams higher in the standings to finish 10-11-3, 8-7-3 NESCAC. They earned a first-round home game for the first time since 2014, but came up short. The team arguably could have had a better record if not for a midseason injury to standout senior goalie Brian Ketchabaw, who returned for the stretch. But things appeared to be pointing in the right direction.
The Vermont Principals’ Association’s 2020 Hall of Fame chose three members with strong local ties: longtime MUHS soccer and baseball coach and teacher Richard “Doc” Seubert, former Otter Valley debate team advisor David Gale, and former Middlebury College basketball standout and Missisquoi three-sport star Matt St. Amour.
UVM avenged two close defeats to the Panther ski team by nipping Middlebury, 868-867 at Middlebury’s own carnival as March opened. The event doubled as the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association Championship.
The Commodore wrestling team took fifth and placed three wrestlers in the top three in their weight classes to submit the best performance among local teams at the state meet. Commodore Aiden Gebo earned the best finish among local wrestlers by taking second at 126 pounds, and VUHS Coach Eugene Stearns was voted the Vermont Coach of the Year.
Five other wrestlers from area teams took thirds: Commodore Taylor Stearns at 132, Otter Levi Cram at 145, Eagle Nate Lavoie at 160, Commodore Barret Barrows at 182, and Otter Sam Martin at 195.
The No. 5 Tiger girls’ hockey team lost at No. 4 Harwood, 2-0 in the first round of D-I playoffs. The Tigers finished 12-7-2.
The girls’ hoop playoffs went a little better. Although No. 15 MUHS lost its first-round D-II game and finished at 5-16, OV prevailed on the road as a No. 9 seed in D-III before falling in the next round to the top seed, and ended with 10 wins.
Also in D-II, the No. 6 Eagles defeated No. 11 Lamoille in the first round as Cami Masse and Chloe Johnston had big games, but they couldn’t get past No. 3 Harwood in the next round.
The VUHS girls had won five straight to enter the playoffs at 12-8 with the No. 7 seed in D-III. They hosted No. 10 Fairfax, also 12-8, and rallied in the second half behind tough defense, especially from Emily Rooney, and 17 points from Felicia Poirier to prevail before a big crowd — we still had big crowds back then. No. 2 Windsor ended their season in the next round.
The Panther women’s and men’s lacrosse teams both started 3-0 before the plug was pulled. Biz as usual for the women, while the men looked as good as they had in years.
The Middlebury men’s basketball team (21-6) won its first-round NCAA Division III tournament game over Westfield State, but host Brockport edged them in the second round. Senior Matt Folger finished that game with 16 points and ended his career with 1,257 points.
On March 8, visiting No. 3 Amherst upset host No. 1 Middlebury in the NESCAC women’s hockey playoff final, 2-1, by scoring the winning goal in the third period 13 seconds after the Panthers had tied the game.
Despite the loss Middlebury (21-3-3) earned an at-large bid to the NCAA. But the Panthers never played another game, and neither did any local school or college team until late September, as the danger of the coronavirus became clear. Soon all NCAA tournaments were cancelled, and school sports soon followed.
SPRING & SUMMER
In May the Champlain Valley Swim League also called off its summer meets. The Vergennes Champs and Middlebury Marlins still held (safely run) practices and intramural competitions and reported good sign-up numbers and team morale.
Golf courses, pickleball and tennis courts opened when the state eased restrictions, and with travel limited, proved to be popular destinations, as were hiking trails and rivers and lakes suitable for canoeing and kayaking.
Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven also opened up, at first without spectators, but gradually a few fans were allowed into the grandstands to join those who watched online. Certainly, the drivers showed up, and the popular dirt track offered full slates of action to entertain those who enjoy motor racing. A number of area drivers fared well.
In July the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl Inc. Board of Governors announced there would be no 67th annual all-star football game between Vermont and New Hampshire high school graduates. Tiger Tyler Buxton had been selected.
Almost all the region’s Independence Day festivities were called off, but a group of diehards preserved the Great Bristol Outhouse Race on a side street. The team of Cam Perta, Emma Radler and Bryson Knight prevailed. Perta, arguably the world’s leading outhouse racing enthusiast, won his second straight title. A member of the Bristol 4th of July Committee said the result was official.
Some youth sports programs persisted, albeit with masks, temperature checks and limited contact. The Addison United Soccer and Middlebury Youth Lacrosse clubs were among those with offerings.
In July NESCAC made it official there would be no competition among its schools, including Middlebury College.
On Aug. 5 Otter Valley senior Mia Politano won the Vermont Junior Women’s Amateur golf championship and finished fourth in the 2020 Vermont Women’s Amateur championship.
Later in August the Mount Abraham Senior Babe Ruth team — made up of 14 Mount Abe baseball players, including six who were seniors this past spring — defeated St. Johnsbury in the state championship game, 6-2, in a contest played in South Burlington. Nolan Whitcomb tossed a two-hit complete game in the final, Ryan Whitcomb hit a key RBI double. The title meant a lot to the Eagles, who believed they could have won a D-II title if the spring season had not been canceled.
Editor’s note: Look for highlights from the rest of 2020 in next week’s Sports Section.