by Bill Murphy
Still a very big proponent of Championship Saturday. Three games, one venue, a day in the outer limits for diehard high school football fans. Most of you know, New Hampshire, has many bigger schools, THUS, more outstanding players, BUT, what they don’t have, is the vision Vermont has. Seeing the success of the Vermont Principals Association and its’ committees in many of their endeavors and especially, the State Football Championship format, they have copied their western neighbors and that is certainly a big compliment. Before you VPA (and Headmasters before them) critics stop reading, there have been a number of times I have criticized the leaders over the years, BUT way more often than not, they get things right. The structure of their committee systems in recent years (I think well more than a decade now), gives more input, prior to decisions being made, and that has certainly helped.
RUTLAND RETURNS TO THE TOP- Once upon a time, at the turn of the century, the Rutland Red Raiders OWNED Vermont High School Football. The Southern power captured titles in 1996 over Middlebury 20-7, 1997 over Middlebury 24-14, 2000 over Essex 7-0, 2001 over Essex 21-0, 2003 over Essex 20-6, 2004 over Middlebury 27-12 and finally in 2006 another title, in a 27-14 victory over Middlebury. You can see Rutland certainly had their day in the sun, BUT, any tan they may have picked up from that exposure, most likely wore off by the time, the Raiders ruled the roost again Saturday 35-7.
Rutland actually spoiled the day. Just looking at final scores, one might think, there was no good football played on Title Day. The game which most, considered to turn into the Game of the Day, Year or even beyond, the battle of unbeatens Rutland and Middlebury, wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. Rutland led 21-0 at the half and the Tigers gained false hope, when they scored to open the second half, BUT, an immediate drive to victory by the Raiders put things away.
Raider Coach Mike Norman earned all kinds of plaudits for a series of title wins during their hot streak during the early 2000’s, BUT then, Hartford became the dominant team. Norman had his team in the hunt most autumns, BUT, all of a sudden, it became a long time since things were the way they use to be. “The people from Rutland expect and demand excellence. It doesn’t take people long to wonder why we aren’t on top anymore. I thought from the beginning this year, that we had a good bunch of kids, BUT, many years they prove they are high school kids and it’s hard to predict any given season. We showed against BFA and Hartford, that we deal with adversity. Both games, we had to overcome missed opportunities . I remember saying when we were down (20-0 first quarter) against Hartford, you’ve got to be kidding me, BUT, the kids stepped up and it was so much fun. We showed our true character.”
What put the Raiders on the title path? “It may have been the Plymouth game,” Norman reflected of the 54-28 non-league defeat at the hands of the New Hampshire team. Norman added, “I think maybe, there was a little bit of complacency on our behalf. They scored early and we took awhile to respond. I think we grew from that. We learned we had to take care of our own business. We made some changes after that one, BUT MOSTLY, you have to credit the kids.”
In the title game Norman said “we showed up ready to go. Middlebury was a great team and has been on a great roll for a long time. The kids were ready for them. I feel really good for these kids, our school and the Rutland area. The kids put in the time and effort to make this happen. Winning like this is always special.
WINNING FOR THE FIRST TIME- IF you haven’t been into the Vermont High School grid scene for a long time, you may not realize the magnitude of what Jason Thomas and his Burr + Burton Bulldogs just accomplished. What most everyone knows is, B+B has been in the thick of things in recent years, HOWEVER, that has not always been the case. Prior to 2011, the program was not even on the Division II radar. In fact, the Bulldogs had just enjoyed one post season game ever before that. My memory is a little sketchy, BUT, B+B I think, had a variety of grid schedules and opponents in the early years. They played some New York teams and sometimes played some teams twice to complete a competitive schedule. Then in those days, they eventually shut down the program, sometime in the 70’s. Then more than 20 years later, the sport was brought back.
“There were a lot of people instrumental in bringing football back in 1999,” Thomas told us Thursday morning after having a few days to bask in the limelight from the title exploits. “It also gave me a job,” he kidded. Thomas said he was “really excited about the outpouring of support. During the parade everyone lined the streets and the town enjoyed the moment. My hat is off to them.”
This game was much closer than the final score of 28-7 indicated, BUT, having seen both games between these teams, the Bulldogs have their way of waiting the Terriers out. Saturday,the game was even at 7-7 midway through the third quarter, WHEN, the underrated B+B defense held the Terriers deep in their own territory. Thomas’ team had the initial possession of the second half and drove 51 yards in 13 plays to the BF 13, where the Terrier defense forced B+B to give up possession on downs. Three plays later, BF had to punt and the eventual champions gained possession at their own 42. This time they would drive 58 yards in 7 plays to take the lead for good on a Will Tucker 9 yard inside run with 4:05 remaining in the third.
The Bulldogs REALLY GAINED CONTROL seconds later, WHEN, on the kick-off, came the hit of the game. BF was headed to decent field position before an explosive hit, separated the returner from the ball around the 30. The impact of the jarring tackle, flung the ball all the way out to the 41, where the Bulldogs then marched the 41 yards to score, in just eight plays on a 19 yard pass from franchise QB Griffin Stalcup to the reliable Carter Vickers.
Thomas and his team received a big setback on their way to the school’s first grid title ever last fall, when they fell to Fair Haven in the semi-finals 33-26. The Bulldog coach took a deep breath and exhaled on the field Saturday shortly following the title win and told the assembled media, “it’s been a long season, a lot of sleepless nights, just trying to make sure I do my part, to make sure these guys are in the best position to win.” The truth is, Thomas put them in tremendous position to win, beginning when he walked through the door as the head coach in 2008. The program had not had a winning season to that point and look at it now. Thomas helped them lay quite a foundation.
OTTER VALLEY REIGNS- Just like B+B, the Otters have waited a full year for a chance to dance away from the title game. The team felt their time had arrived a year ago, when Mike Williams and the Bellows Free Academy Bullets of Fairfax left Rutland with a 42-30 title victory to spoil a day Jim Hill and his player thought had been made for them. In addition, like B+B, the Otters program has not been around forever. They were born as a club, back in 1995 (almost the same time Hill graduated from near-by Rutland High School), moved to eight man play two years later and then eventually to the world of 11 man combat, a few years later.
Hill came on board as a Junior Varsity Coach and a Defensive Coordinator, while the team was still in eight man ball, THUS, he has been present since the team transitioned to the full fledged game. “Football has always been my passion,” Hill told us, also admitting, “while I was still getting my feet wet in those early years, I was also hoping to get to Rutland, BUT, I fell in love with the community. I also realized it would be exciting to be part of building a program and become a part of a culture being built. When Dennis Perry took over, he told me Day 1, there would be an opportunity on the sideline some day. He said, he couldn’t guarantee me the job, BUT, would recommend me when that time came. He taught me a lot and those days were really special.”
Now Hill is in the drivers seat as the Otters captured the title, and he has a sidekick of his own, who he thinks highly of and hopes the two can work together for years to come. “Make sure you mention Chas Hall,” he stressed, going on to say, “he has had a big impact as offensive coordinator and adds a lot to our football team.”
Like a year ago and like B+B Saturday, the road to the title was not without obstacles on title day. “I told the team, they just got to finish, when they were not pleased with their performance in the first half” (when they led 13-7), Hill reflected Wednesday evening. He went on to tell us, “then they (Union 32) came out and scored on the first drive to take the lead 14-13. Certainly there was some nervousness at that time, BUT, I knew they couldn’t stop us, if we took care of the ball and we responded quickly.” By the time the responding was complete, it was Otter Valley 33-14 and the hardware was about to be delivered.
One more thing to close, Hill blended the old with the new in order to give his team a touch of what was important and exciting to him as a high school player in Rutland. “I wanted the kids to experience what I was able to experience as a player and we rented some lights for a night game with Mill River. It was a great atmosphere,” he reflected. How about the future coach? Hill said, “we certainly lose a lot, but I think we are in pretty good shape,” pointing out, “we return seven starters on defense. I think we can contend.”