by Bill Murphy

Big games in all three divisions highlight Week Nine in Vermont High School football. The spotlight clearly centers on Divisions I and III, where IF you lose, you go home.

When one focuses on the quarterfinals of any postseason, the four-five game is where one expects the action to be the best. On occasion the three-six game can attract attention, BUT, more probable than not (YES- Brady deflating language) the four-five game is the one fans don’t want to miss.

In Division I, where most Green Mountain State gridiron followers see the widest open field since who can remember when, the four-five game means Middlebury at Essex. Both teams have tradition galore surrounding their program and Essex shut down and out the Tigers in Week Six 17-0 to start a unheard of two game losing streak for Dennis Smith’s team. The Friday night contest, has don’t miss, screaming out at fans.

The four-five encounter in Division III has Mill River at Union 32, also on Friday evening. D-III may not have as attractive middle of the seeding games as D-I, because U-32 already blitzed the Minutemen 53-20 in Week Seven in Clarendon, BUT, MR is playing for pride at the very least. They have been beaten heavily by the Raiders and Otter Valley in back to back weeks by almost identical scores (52-20 by OV) and this team, which stayed unbeaten until facing the Top Four seeds in consecutive weeks (outscored 210-54) may not have been a real contender, despite their early season strong play against the non-contenders. IF MR isn’t competitive in this meeting, it is likely they were not exactly a contender, BUT, definitely the best of the rest.

Back to D-I where there is one other Friday night match-up and two more on Saturday. Colchester the eighth seed, will travel to Hartford for the Friday night action. The Hurricanes had very little trouble dispatching the Lakers on the road in Week 2, BUT, they play the games for a reason. D-I Defending state championship coach Mike Norman of Rutland recently witnessed first hand what the force of the Hurricane can be, BUT, he also has been around long enough to see there could be a break in the clouds.

“They have very good players who are well coached, who have experienced a lot. When things come together, those kind of things happen,” the veteran Raider mentor said of Matt Trombly’s team, who carries the number one seed into the pigskin tournament courtesy of two back to back comeback road victories over St. Johnsbury and Rutland to end the season. Last week Rutland led Hartford 33-13 in the second half before the Red, Blue and White found a way to survive.

HOWEVER, Norman says there is hope. “With all due respect to Hartford and the other top seeds, I don’t believe there has ever been such parity in Division I as long as I have been coaching here. For many teams, they may find it difficult to beat a team twice.” Having said that, it was St. Johnsbury 46 Rutland 21 the first time around at St. J in Week 4. The two come together on the same field Saturday at 1 p.m. with St.J’s Rich Alerico and Norman on the sidelines with all kinds of experience calling the shots. The Hilltoppers were unbeaten and carrying their heads high the first time, this  weekends hosts now have lost their last two D-I contests (Rice 7-0 and Hartford 35-20), so the verdict is definitely out.

The final D-I quarterfinal is a replay of a 6-0 defensive struggle as Champlain Valley Union won at Rice. This time the game is at CVU, BUT, Rice finished strongly with 7-0 and 14-7 triumphs over St. J and Middlebury respectively and as everyone knows defense wins play-off games, so does that parity that Norman mentioned make this a possible upset in the making?

Each of the other postseason go rounds in D-III are expected to be one sided, BUT, obviously IF a big upset occurs, that proves the theory of that’s why we play the games to be true. HOWEVER, since 84% of all high school games in the state this year were decided by 14 or more points, don’t expect it. Oxbow will be at number two seed Woodstock Friday at 7 p.m., while the Poultney/ Mount Saint Joseph combo is at Windsor and Bellows Free Academy (Fairfax) at Otter Valley for Saturday 1 p.m. starts.

Division II still has a week of regular season competition remaining and the Fair Haven hosting Bellows Falls get together on Friday night at 7 p.m. carries both a play-off atmosphere and a cautious twist of, do we really have to do this twice? Chances are that this season finale will establish which one of these long time opponents will have the pleasure of hosting a rematch between the two teams next week. Playing the same team in back to back games is in many ways a nightmare for teams close in ability, which these teams are, so will both teams let it all fly this week in hopes of making sure of homefield advantage next week OR save their all out attack in hopes of surprising the opposition next week? This is unquestionably the Game of the Week in Division II, with or without the chessboard.

Burr + Burton, who earned the top seed last week, is idle in the final week of play and the D-1 winner Friday night will join them with the homefield semi-final contests next week. Burlington, who owns the fourth play-off seed will be at North Country Fridaynight at the same 7 p.m time that Mount Abraham is at Milton, with Lyndon at Mt. Mansfield Saturday at 1 p.m. There are also Wildcard games in Divisions I and III for teams, which did not qualify for the run for the title. In D-I, Bellows Free Academy of St. Albans travels to Brattleboro and a pair of winless teams Mount Anthony and South Burlington meet in the northern city. Both games are Friday night at 7 p.m. In the D-III extra game, Springfield travels to Spaulding for the second week in succession in aSaturday afternoon contest.

Last week our prediction mark was 10-5, the worst of 2016 bringing the numbers overall to 104-23 which is 82%. This week the selections are Essex 18 Middlebury 14, St. Johnsbury 41 Rutland 24, Hartford 45 Colchester 14, Rice 14 CVU 12,  Windsor 56 Poultney/ MSJ 0, Woodstock 45 Oxbow 7, Otter Valley 50 BFA 20, Union 32 46 Mill River 16, Spaulding 28 Springfield 14, BF 53 Fair Haven 41,

Burlington 32 North Country 18, Mt. Mansfield 40 Lyndon 6 and Milton 40 Mt Abraham 18.

Enjoy your football weekend readers.