VUHS boys' soccer shuts down MUHS
VERGENNES — The Middlebury Union High School boys’ soccer team came into rainy Vergennes on Tuesday on the heels of a strong performance in a 2-0 win at Mount Abraham on the previous Saturday — the same Eagle team that had defeated the Commodores at VUHS last week, 4-0.
All signs pointed to the talented Tigers continuing to march through the Lake Division.
But a VUHS team that could be finding its identity had other ideas: For the second straight game the Division III Commodores got an opportunistic first-half goal against a D-I foe and made it stand up with strong defense in a 1-0 win.
At 3-4 the Commodores have moved into the top half of the D-III standings, and now they are growing more confident.
And senior co-captain Ezekiel Palmer, whose first-half goal on Tuesday proved to be the difference, said that confidence that created Tuesday’s win and Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Missisquoi came from hard work to fix what was going wrong after a 1-4 start.
“We’ve got a young team, a lot of sophomores, and we’ve being preparing for the physicality of games, like Middlebury today and Missisquoi,” Palmer said. “I think the work we’ve put into practice has really come out, and we’ve shown it on the field.”
Specifically, Palmer said, a team-wide focus on defensive tactics has turned things around after the Commodores surrendered 13 goals in their previous three games.
“We decided to put in a lot of focus on our defense and our shape, who should be stepping when and where,” Palmer said. “Because when we come up against teams like Middlebury they’re going to be switching balls from one side to the other. They’re very talented. So we prepared for that the last couple weeks, and it’s really shown the last couple games.”
MUHS Coach Reeves Livesay, whose team dropped to 3-3-1, kept his comments brief. He credited the Commodores for good offensive play in the first and for strong defense, but said the Tigers did not put their best foot forward in the first half. The stats backed him up: MUHS outshot VUHS by 5-3 in the first half and then by 15-2 after the break.
“It’s unfortunate we really waited until the second half to really up the pressure. They did a fantastic job in the first half, and we just gave their playmakers way too much time on the ball in the first half, and they took advantage of it,” Livesay said. “You have to show up on the field ready to go from the start.”
VUHS Coach Kevin Hayes noted fairly that a number of Tiger shots came from under pressure or from long range.
“I know they outshot us, but we expected that to happen,” Hayes said. “They’re going to get looks, but they didn’t get too many good ones. The defense closed down fairly well today. We worked hard. That was the key today. We worked hard.”
VERGENNES UNION HIGH School senior Robbie Bicknell spins away from Tiger sophomore Owen Connelly during Tuesday’s game in Vergennes.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
He credited his back line — senior Jack Halpin and sophomore Tucker Stearns in the middle and sophomores Jon Willis and Robbie Bicknell on the flanks — and his central defensive midfielders, juniors Jeffrey Stearns and Kai Williams. Halpin in particular played a smart positional game, disrupted Tiger advances, and headed the ball out of harm’s way.
“He did fantastic on Saturday, too, one-v-one he really closed down on guys. He’s got speed. He reads the game. He’s playing his best soccer,” Hayes said.
Opportunities were few in the first half, although Tiger striker Tucker Moulton and center middie Owen Palcsik each had chances, and Halpin headed away a corner kick struck by Tiger center middie Eben Jackson from the right side that looked to be curling home. Jeffrey Stearns sent long balls to Palmer and middie Jarret Muzzy that the Tiger back line broke up — MUHS central defenders Ben Crawford and Spencer Doran played well.
Palmer’s goal came after a Muzzy throw-in deep down the right sideline. Palmer headed it toward the middle, and the ball bounced around the box and back to Palmer in a pocket of space about eight yards out from the right post. His eight-yard shot went into the upper right corner over Tiger goalie Lucas Palcsik (two saves).
After the break the Tigers equaled their first-half total of five shots in the first five minutes. Tiger central middies Ben Turner, Jackson and Palcsik helped their team control play in the half. But many MUHS shots were off target: VUHS sophomore goalie Gabriel Kadric made only four saves in all, three in the second half.
The first on goal came from overlapping left back Joseph Findlay seven minutes in. After Tiger right back Devon Kearns cleared away a Palmer header on a VUHS corner kick, Kearns had a golden chance on a Tiger counter in the half’s 11th minute. But his blast from 22 yards out skidded off the inside of the left post and bounced way.
The Tigers’ frustration continued, as they could not convert six corner kicks or two free kicks deep in VUHS territory, mostly as shots went high or wide, mostly, but not always, from distance. On the next-to-last corner kick VUHS defended the initial serve, but the Tigers worked the ball to Kearns again, almost at the same spot, and this time Kadric used his fingertips to deflect the ball just over the crossbar.
Down the stretch Bicknell, Palmer and Jeffrey Stearns broke up the final Tiger thrusts, and the Commodores celebrated.
Hayes said the Commodores are learning to take advantage of their chances as well as lock down the back, and he hopes they will not forget those lessons moving forward.
“Beating these guys, we feel good. So we work hard, get to Saturday and Spaulding, and see how it goes,” Hayes said.
Palmer called Tuesday’s win huge for the Commodores.
“This one is massive. We’re going to take this one, and we’re going to take it on our shoulders and celebrate tonight,” he said. “We’ve got Spaulding on Saturday, homecoming and that’s as important as they all are. We want to win that one. If we win that one who knows how far we can go?”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.