by Bill Murphy

Each year the high school football season seems to sneak up on us. We have become accustomed to the change, which occurred sometime in the last couple of decades, that the campaign kicks off on Labor Day weekend, BUT, the hot weather that usually sets in for those late summer practices, always throws us off. HOWEVER, the cool weather (label it cold for tonight’s kick-offs) reminds us the opening games are only hours away, whether your team plays Friday night OR Saturday.

To many, it only seems like yesterday that Hartford beat St. Johnsbury, Bellows Falls defeated Burr + Burton and Windsor dominated Otter Valley to claim the Division I, II, and III crowns respectively. All should be contenders again in 2017.

There will be thirteen DI teams this year with Burlington back to the top tier pack and Mount Anthony trading places with the Seahorses, with the Patriots heading down to DII. We spoke to Hartford Hurricanes Coach Matt Trombly about his team defending their crown.

“We have enough good players in our program to compete on a regular basis. They have talent, BUT, many of them have never been given the opportunity to play games under the lights when they count,” he said, adding, “BUT, they will need to be ready very quickly.”

The readiness is made apparent by the schedule which sees the Hurricanes hosting 2016 runner-up St. Johnsbury in the opener. It was Hartford 24 St. J 14 in the title game and it says here the Hilltoppers get revenge by just about the opposite score in the Friday night 7 p.m. tilt.

This corner does not see either of those teams finishing in the Top Two spots this time around, BUT, they will both be in the battle for homefield advantage in the first round of the play-offs and the winner tonight, might just have won the game, that assures them such a position.

It says here the new kids on the block will come center stage this fall. Champlain Valley Union has been knocking at the door recently, having advanced to the semi-finals three of the past four years and losing by the slimmest of margins, 35-34 in last year’s semi-final. They will win the Division I regular season title this time around. They are expected to start their road to success the hard way, when they travel to Bellows Free Academy Friday night for a 7 p.m. opener and come home with a 26-20 victory.

Middlebury is our choice to finish second in 2017. A very decent Colchester squad will be their opening night opponent and the Tigers take the home opener seriously enough to prevail 16-12. This is another Friday 7 p.m. start, as is Essex at South Burlington. Essex won’t have much trouble in this one, as they are in charge 40-14 and start their road to a third place DI finish. St. Johnsbury should be fourth this fall.

Although there really is not that much difference between first and sixth in a kind of wide open DI this fall, there obviously must be a pecking order. We feel Rutland will finish fifth and they will begin their march to that spot with a 33-14 victory over Brattleboro in a home game Friday evening at 7 p.m. Hartford should place sixth in the regular season.

Rivals Rice and Burlington will meet in Week 2 and they are two of the four teams, who will be in a dogfight for the final two play-off spots. The two longtime foes will join Bellows Free Academy and Colchester in a tight battle for seventh. Rice plays in a Saturday afternoon 1 p.m.game at Mount Mansfield this week and should be victorious 28-20, as the journey begins for those important slots. Burlington will finally come out a winner against old Division II rival Burr + Burton Friday night with a 32-26 thrilling triumph in a 7 p.m. home contest, BUT, when the regular season dust settles, BFA will nip them for eighth place. The Seahorses will finish in ninth, two spots behind Rice.

What will be the order of the final four teams in Division I this fall? It says here Colchester will be tenth, Mount Mansfield eleventh, Brattleboro twelfth and South Burlington thirteenth.

Moving along to DII, it will be another team which has been hanging around, that will finish on top in 2017. Fair Haven has also advanced to the semi-finals three of the past four years, even played in the title game in 2014, BUT, was flattened by Rice 60-14, who was on their way to Division I status.

The Slaters will begin their ride to the top of the loop on the road in Mount Anthony’s first DII contest. I think, like Burlington, the Patriots will show growth in the new league, BUT, not on opening night, when they may end up wondering IF things will ever get better, after FH has their way in a 45-18 triumph. Kick-off will be at 7 p.m. Friday.

Second place in DII will be a knock down battle as defending champion Bellows Falls, Burr + Burton and Union 32 all tangle throughout the fall, before the Terriers emerge. BF travels to Spaulding Friday night and start to prove they will be second best in the Division with a 54-12 victory. BF coach Bob Lockerby thinks he can plug many of the holes he lost to graduation, BUT, said, “we are definitely not the favorite. I think we might be good enough to claim homefield for the first round of the play-offs, BUT, we are not the favorite. Fair Haven will be pretty strong and tough for anyone to beat.”

Burr + Burton will lose their opener mentioned earlier at Burlington, BUT, will eventually finish third ahead of second week opponent U-32, who hosts Mount Abraham Friday night at 7 p.m. U-32 easily wins their inaugural DII get together 32-12 and will claim the final home field first round play-off spot with a fourth-place finish.

North Country will prove to be the best of the rest. They host Lyndon Friday night and a 36-6 victory starts a strong season for the Falcons. Mount Anthony will finish sixth in Division two and qualify for a play-off game.

The final two play-off spots will feature a battle between Mount Abraham, Milton and Otter Valley. When the regular season concludes Otter Valley will be the team that falls short and finishes ninth. Milton’s victory this Saturday afternoon at Otter Valley at 1 p.m., 24-20 may prove to be the difference in the end between eighth and ninth place. Mount Abe will finish seventh. Tenth place is likely to come down to the late season encounter between Lyndon and Spaulding. Color Lyndon tenth.

Division III is the only division in which I think the defending champ will finish first. Windsor Coach Greg Balch doesn’t think picking anyone is all that easy in his league. He told us Friday morning, “I always think there are surprises in Division III. I do a better job of picking who will finish where in Division I or II, than I do in Division III because in DIII, there is a major change often between one year and the next, because you never have a handle on which teams have the most depth. We have a lot of good players back, BUT, an injury could turn a position from a solid senior to an inexperienced freshman,” Balch told us.

Windsor welcomes a growing Springfield team into town Saturday at 1 p.m. for an opener which will prove the Cosmos need more time to grow 52-14. The Yellow Jackets will finish first in the division. The best thing about DIII this year is that everyone will play each other in the regular season, just the way that it should be, proving someone turns out to be a true champion or number one seed, by winning it on the field.

It says here second place will go to the Woodstock Wasps. Windsor and Woodstock don’t meet until the final week of the season, so once again the suspense should stay alive. Woodstock was supposed to play Oxbow in their opener, BUT, Oxbow did not have enough players to field a varsity team this fall. The Wasps will open at Springfield next week.

Mill River should be strong enough to finish third. They have their 2017 opener Saturday at 1 p.m.when they host Missisquoi. Balch predicts of the Thunderbirds, “someday they will have a good program. They have the numbers, it is just a question of when they will be ready.” I don’t think it will be Saturday. I see the Minutemen prevailing 48-6.

The final game on the opening weekend dance card will have Bellows Free Academy of Fairfax, who we see finishing fourth traveling to Poultney/Mount Saint Joseph Saturday at 1 p.m. for a shootout, which is likely to decide that fourth position. The Bullets will have just enough to triumph 36-32.

Ready. Set. Go. The weather has arrived just in time. Enjoy your football.