Tiger boys' soccer wins battle with VUHS

VERGENNES — In an early-season defensive battle at Vergennes Union High School on Tuesday, one free kick proved to be the difference as visiting Middlebury came away with a 1-0 victory over the host Commodores.

The goal came in the second half’s 31st minute courtesy of Tiger senior right back Devon Kearns. Senior center midfielder Owen Palcsik sent a low direct kick from just outside the left of the VUHS box. It bounced just past the penalty stripe.

Somehow the roller eluded the Commodore defense, stout all game long. Also eluding them was a 12-yard, left-footed tap-in from Kearns, breaking in alone, into the unguarded right side of the net.

Kearns, a three-year starter, credited Palcsik’s set-up.

“I couldn’t have missed it. He laid it on a platter for me,” Kearns said. “I had no choice but to score.”

The positive for both teams was improved defense. Both struggled in opening losses, but have bounced back with consecutive stronger defensive efforts.

For the 2-1 Tigers it was a second consecutive road shutout after a 3-0 home loss in their opener. The Tigers have a new starter in goal, freshman Owen Lawton; at center back, sophomore Eddie Hodde; and at defensive central midfielder, freshman Oliver Anderson. And on Tuesday Coach Reeves Livesay moved starting senior left back Joseph Findlay up to midfield and started senior Hunter Munteanu at left back.

The group, including returners Kearns on the right and classmate Spencer Doran in the middle, looked like it was gelling, holding VUHS to eight shots, three of them reaching Lawton for saves.

“We’ve been working on our shape in practice,” Kearns said. “Keeping the shape tight has really helped in the back.”

The Commodores returned six of their back seven from last year: Gabriel Kadric in net; center back Jeffrey Stearns, where he is joined by Jon Willis; flank backs Robbie Bicknell and Xander DeBlois; and defensive midfielders Tucker Stearns and Kai Williams.

VUHS likewise struggled in its opener, when defending Division III champion Stowe poured in five goals. But since then the Commodores blanked Northfield-Williamstown and held MUHS to 10 shots on Tuesday, four on goal.

“Our defense is getting an identity and getting solid,” Coach Kevin Hayes said. “But they (the Tigers) had some chances, and Gabriel did well on some of the long shots.”

As might be expected in the early going, the teams’ defenses looked like they are ahead of the offenses. The Tigers generated chances in the first half, though.

In the 7th minute Kadric did well to beat Tiger right middie Anthony Garner to a long through ball, and in the 15th minute Williams broke up a Palcsik run in the box. Palcsik fired wide on a restart from fellow senior middie Eben Jackson midway through.

For VUHS their ball movement up front picked up when senior Josias Salomao, nursing an injury, sophomore Jonah Mahé and freshman Shamus Rooney came in off the bench, but the Tigers finished the half with a 5-1 edge in shots.

The Commodores picked up more chances in a second half in which they outshot MUHS, 7-4, although the Tigers still maintained an edge in possession and their chances were dangerous. As well as the goal, Jackson hit the right post early on after a nice move in the box, and Anderson hit the left post from the 18 on a feed from Jackson in the 38th minute.

For VUHS, Tucker Stearns ripped a shot 15 minutes in, but Doran blocked it; Mahé shot wide on a turn after a 21st-minute corner kick; Mahé created threats from the left side; and Lawton came up huge in the 28th minute, diving to his right to deny middie Jarret Muzzy after a loose ball rolled to him 12 yards out from the left post.

MUHS Coach Livesay praised what he called an improving Tiger back line.

“Our defense played with composure. I thought they did a good job of helping each other out, making sure someone was there in the support position,” Livesay said. “We’ve talked a lot about making sure we understand what our primary responsibilities are on defense. I think they’re seeing and reading the game better now.”

He said more work needs to be done elsewhere.

“There are certainly some positives. There were good work rates for both teams during the game,” Livesay said. “I think we’re still building toward moving the ball quickly and being able to possess the ball and really build up our attack.”

Kearns agreed the Tigers are not yet where they want to be.

“We still have to pick up the pace a little bit if we’re going to compete at the end,” Kearns said. “I think we’ve got all the pieces, all the tactical components ready to go. I think we just need to bring the heart, the chip on the shoulder, and put our head down and just go get it.”

For VUHS, Hayes believes his attack will come around.

“We’ve just got to work a little bit more on the final third. We need patience, and to see the (opening) when it’s there. But it’s a work in progress. It’s a lot better in the last two games than in the first game,” he said. “We’ll be OK.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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