by Bill Murphy

St. Johnsbury, Burr + Burton and Windsor are this years number one seeds in Division I, II and III respectively, as we head into the 2017 Vermont High School Football Play-Offs. The Hilltoppers and the Bulldogs both fell in last years title games, while the Yellow Jackets grabbed the Division III title. Most knowledgeable fans believe that all three of them will be back in the big game this time around. We spoke to all the defending championship coaches for their thoughts heading into the games that really count.

St. Johnsbury and Hartford met in the title game last fall and met again in the season opener in 2017. St. J came away the winner 22-19 back in Week I and Rich Alercio’s  squad has been out in front ever since. We spoke to Matt Trombly, Hartford’s coach, about what it has been like chasing Alercio’s eleven all season, with the Hilltoppers going 8-0 and the Hurricanes 7-1.

“We’ve been fortunate to win every game since,” Trombly said and pointed out, despite the two teams standing, ” we have not been thinking about who is ahead of us. It has always been our philosophy, that we do what we do and not worry about anything else. We have a game each week and we work to get better by correcting our mistakes. There is a lot to be said for our kids who stay focused on what’s next and that is Colchester right now. We know Burlington, who is a great team, could be one week down the road, BUT, all our focus is on Colchester.”

Hartford will host the Lakers (seventh seed 3-5) Friday night at 7) and the two teams did not meet during the regular season. The Hilltoppers play Saturday at 1 p.m. at home against a Champlain Valley Union (3-5) team which played on the same field in St. J two weeks ago and fell 57-13. Upsets do happen, BUT, I believe both these teams advance, St. J by 49-14 and Hartford by 40-21. Before moving on, we should mention Trombly does not take anyone easy. “All we have to do is look at last week to see what can happen. We played an Essex team, which hasn’t had a strong season (1-7) and we just barely got out of there with a win (12-7). Every team comes ready to play.”

While on the subject of Essex, they are one of five Division I teams, which did not qualify for the post season, BUT, have been given an extra game to play this week. They will be at Rutland (3-5) Friday night and the Raiders will defeat the Hornets 40-7 for the second time this season. Also on Friday evening, Brattleboro (1-7) will be at Division II Spaulding (1-6) in a non-play-off crossover and the Colonels prevail 50-7. On Saturday, there will be two more non-play-off get togethers at 1 p.m. with South Burlington (2-6) playing for a second time at Rice (2-6) and Rice will be victorious again 23-14 in a closer encounter. The final extra game will see Otter Valley (0-8) win for the first time this season at Mount Abraham (1-7) Saturday at 1, 22-20.

There are two more Division I play-off meetings and these two should be the best contests this week in that division. They both will kick-off at 7 p.m. Friday. Middlebury (5-3) will travel to Bellows Free Academy of St. Albans (6-2)  for the always good game anticipated four versus five clash, while Mount Mansfield (5-3) will be at Burlington (7-1). Our selections here are BFA 30 Middlebury 24 and Burlington 32 Mt. Mansfield 23.

When the Division II season began, most observers saw Fair Haven as the Division II favorite. Defending titlist Bellows Falls Coach Bob Lockerby was among the persons sold on that prognosis. Thinking shifted for one and all after a 37-7 Burr + Burton blasting of Fair Haven. “I wasn’t alone in underestimating what Burr + Burton had coming back. They filled their holes and they have been a very good football team. When things began, I thought it would be Fair Haven, Burr + Burton and us in the top spots for the play-offs. I wasn’t sure who the other top teams would be, BUT, Lyndon has been one of the biggest surprises,” the veteran coach suggested.

Burr + Burton (7-1) with their lone loss coming at the hands of Division I Burlington certainly earned their top seed. They will host North Country (3-5) Saturday at 1 p.m. The two teams did not meet during the regular season and although the Falcons finished their season strong with three straight victories, they will be overwhelmed with the Bulldogs speed and physicality and the scoreboard will show that 48-8.

Fair Haven (7-1) seeded second in D II will host Mount Anthony (3-5) and they will easily pass the Patriots by in a Friday evening 7 p.m. match-up. Color this one Slater Blue 51-12. The two met with a similar score resulting in the season opener.

Lockerby also told us, “I think we will have the closest game in our division this weekend,” and since it will be the four-five game with Lyndon (4-4) at BF (6-2) Friday night, that makes sense. One could tell the BF coach was sweating it out as he added, “stopping them is not going to be easy. They have a strong fullback and the quarterback throws well and runs the option, so we will be challenged by them.” The challenge should be there, BUT, I am not sure I buy that closest game in D II this weekend stuff, it says here, Terriers 40 Vikings 16.

It says here, the best game of the first round of the play-offs in D II , will be the Friday 7 p.m. contest with Union 32 (4-4) at Milton (7-1). I expect a great deal of offense in this one, with the team which plays the best defense winning out. The final should be Raiders 30 Yellow Jackets 22.

They will be going through the motions the next two weeks in Division III to set up the finale between Windsor and Woodstock. Although my pick was correct, Windsor over Woodstock a week ago, helping pave the way to a strong closing week of 12-2, making it a 92-26 prediction fall, BUT I WAS SOOOO…….WRONG. I said there was a 1 or 2% chance of someone beating Windsor in D III and that could only happen in the title game IF EVERYTHING went wrong for the Jackets.

INCREDIBLY, the two teams played to a 6-6 tie in Windsor and the Jacks won in overtime 12-9 in the regular season finale. Did anyone on either team read what I said? Did the Jackets get cocky or did the Wasps get propelled by the disrespect handed their way? I thought Windsor was that good and maybe they are and I thought Woodstock could not possibly come even close to replacing what they lost. They are like Bob Lockerby said about Burr + Burton, REALLY GOOD. I guess IF coaches can miscalulate, so can sportswriters.

Windsor (7-0) does not even have to take the field this week as they earned a bye in the first round of Division III action. Woodstock (6-2) (6-1 Vermont) hosts  Poultney/ Mount Saint Joseph (1-6) Friday night at 7 p.m. The score was 43-6 in the regular season, make it 49-6 this time around. Mill River (5-2) the third seed, may have an interesting game with sixth seed Missisquoi (1-6) because the Thunderbirds shocked Bellows Free Acacemy of Fairfax (2-5) last week 54-24, making both other first round contests quite intriguing.

Obviously the other match-up is the four-five game with Springfield (2-5) at BFA. Both these games will be held Saturday at 1 p.m.Coach Greg Balch, who had the privilege of sitting in the winners circle in all of Division III in 2016 says “these teams are on the rise,” he said in reference to both lower seeds hitting the road. He went on to say, “we opened the season against Springfield and they are a different team today. They have a number of seniors who are coming together, who just might be able to win again.”

We couldn’t let the moment go by without asking Balch about that Woodstock game that caught me by surprise and he interestingly said, “you never know how good another team is, until you actually play them. We watched them play Union 32 and we really came away impressed. We knew for sure then, they were really good. BUT, you have to remember, neither one of us was tested this year and when you don’t have close games, you really don’t know how good you are. You don’t actually know about how you match up with a team until you play them and they had elements of speed and physicality, which may have surprised us a little.”

Looking ahead? That isn’t allowed in the post season. UNLESS maybe, you are Windsor and Woodstock.