Title Day at Rutland High School

by Bill Murphy

And then there were four, …… games that is, remaining in the 2015 Vermont High School Football season. No, we didn’t bump our head and forget OR purposely send out, the idea, that there are four Vermont Football playing divisions, even though we think there should be. No, there are four games left, three title games at the Rutland High School complex Saturday and then the following Saturday ( The North/South Game) at Middlebury College. There is excitement in the air for this week’s big tripleheader.

The excitement begins at 11 a.m. as the top two seeds in Division II, Burr + Burton and Bellows Falls get the wake-up call and start the ball rolling. These two teams met in Week 8 and both were undefeated at the time. The Bulldogs came away a 19-14 winner on their home field that Saturday evening in the cold and flurry filled game. Most fans expected to see a shootout with points blowing out the lightbulbs in the scoreboard, BUT, witnessed a defensive battle to some degree, especially in the first half. What are we likely to see this time?

“I really don’t know what to expect,” Falls Coach Bob Lockerby said, adding, “I was surprised too at the score the first time. I was happy, for the most part, with the way we played, I know we earned their respect, but we left a lot of things on the field that night and we hope we can do better in those areas”. Lockerby went on to say,”I have really enjoyed coaching this team. Like it is planned, they seem to get better every week and I think we just might have a great game left in us.”

Most fans and the media have characterized this game as the passing of Burr + Burton versus the ground game of Bellows Falls. Academy Coach Jason Thomas thinks people are being too tunneled visioned if they profess that perspective. Thomas says, “I do not think we are one dimensional. I feel we can do whatever we need to do to win the game. We have been in several games where we rushed for more yards than we passed for. We may throw the ball more than most teams, but our goal is balance. You must run to win this time of year, period. Bellows Falls also hurt us with their passing our first game, so we need to fix that or that opens up their offense.”

This should be a outstanding way to open the tripleheader. We witnessed the first game and there WERE times when the Bulldogs ran well and the Terriers did have successful moments through the air. Now, two teams, who laid it all on the line three weeks ago and turned in a first rate contest, have now made whatever adjustments they feel necessary and will try it all over again. Most think, Burr + Burton is the better team, BUT, what about history? The Bulldogs have never won a state football title and the Terriers have ten. The same athletes are not lining up in 2015, BUT, sometimes the tradition wins out. Who do you think will win?

The middle game, is your real David versus Goliath battle on this card. Like Burr + Burton, Otter Valley was a favorite back in August. In Division II, there were as many as four teams, who most felt could at least challenge the team from Manchester. Those in the know in Division III, have said all along, that the Otters would not, in all probability, be challenged, except possibly on a day, when either Union 32 or Woodstock put together the perfect game AND OV did almost everything wrong. In Week 4, the Otters welcomed Woodstock to Brandon in a rude way 35-7 and then two weeks later, traveled to East Montpelier and ran away, 55-14. HOWEVER, Union 32 is back. Could the Otters put themselves in a position to be denied?

OV Coach Jim Hill and his team go back one year and obtain more than enough incentive to fuel the fire for Saturday’s Final. They felt the 2014 title was in their sights, BUT, so did Bellows Free Academy of Fairfax, who outscored the Otters 42-30 and came away with the crown. One year is a long time to wait, BUT, Hill gives us the belief his team has dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s all the way to this game.

“We will be ready, BUT, they will be prepared. They had some opportunities they didn’t cash in on in our last meeting, so that score may not tell everything. We have had our best week of practice and I think we are ready,” the Otters coach said, going on to tell a story about the championship game one year ago, when BFA’s line came up big. Hill reflected, “they controlled the line of scrimmage against us last year. Our young linemen dedicated themselves to the weight room ever since and have become bigger, stronger, meaner and they are looking forward to this game. We look at this as a rivalry. We have met before. Now, three of our four title games have been against them. We lost in ’01 (26-7), BUT, won in ’05 (23-20), so this is a big game.”

From the Union 32 perspective, Brian Divelbliss feels his team is ready to give it a shot. He told us, “I think we can definitely play better football than we did the first time. The team has improved all year. Playing Woodstock (last week in the semi-finals) prepares us to play anyone. We focus on what we can do, we try not to focus on them. We talk about mistakes, we need to keep them at a minimum and keep the scheme. We have talked about making progress.”

Union 32 has captured four titles over the years to the Otters one, HOWEVER, when they meet head on, the count is even. Like D II, this game features the favorite, without the traditional resume, against the team with little experience in the titles winners circle. The Otters are unquestionably the biggest favorites on this day. How much will that one years memory play a part in this one?
Two heavyweight programs will square off in the finale. The Division I title tilt has all the makings of not just the Game of the Week, BUT ALSO, the Game of the Year. In one corner, is the two time defending champion, who gets no respect, having not lost in an eternity (32 games), BUT STILL, competing in a system, that does not just give them a number two seed, BUT ALSO, makes them play a title game on their opponents homefield. In the other corner, is a team that has done every thing they need to do to be called number one and feel they earned that spot and that is correct by the system. In an unusual twist, they will host the defending champ, because a year ago, it was determined their complex was the best to host the annual full day of football. They should not be criticized for a systems decision they had nothing to do with. Thus, in a way, both teams have been in a situation of not receiving the credit they deserve.

On the field, Middlebury, the defending champ, has captured 10 Vermont State Football titles, while, Rutland is right on their heels with 9. A Rutland victory would even the score. Evening the score and passing their foe, is exactly what Middlebury has done in recent years. The back to back titles the Tigers just added to their resume, caught and passed the Raiders in the record books. Now, the two clash head on for bragging rights. Middlebury has appeared now, in five of the last six, D I title games. Rutland’s last appearance in a championship game was back in 2009, a loss, BUT, their last two victories were in 2006 and 2004, by almost identical scores of 27-14 and 27-12 respectively. By the way, the opponent in those two games was Middlebury. This really is a heavyweight match-up.

Tiger Coach Dennis Smith understands why the game is in Rutland, BUT, he does not have to be comfortable with it. When asked about it, he had two relative opinions. First and foremost, he said, “Having homefield advantage in high school football is a big thing. You can have the advantage of preparing the way you are most comfortable with, which makes the game seem more like, just another football game.” Smith did add though that, “our team travels well and I am sure we will be ready to play.” One area Smith feels good about is the fact his team has already faced adversity and passed the test. He relates, “we were in trouble against Colchester on the road, we were down 13 or 14 and I am proud of the way the kids handled the situation. We have been behind more than once and overcame the situation.”

Rutland Coach Mike Norman feels the moment is important to both teams. How they carry themselves in handling that will be the key. The Rutland Coach told us, “when you are in games like this, you have to be able to control your emotions. The most important thing is to play with a sense of urgency, without pushing the panic button.” Norman added a little tidbit which should get the crowd excited. He shared with us, “The Rutland-Middlebury game is always a back and forth game. This should be exciting. This should be fun.”

Three games. One field. The perfect set-up for the fans, who should turnout in big numbers for yet another Vermont State Title Day. The whole event should be fun, HOWEVER, I think they saved the best game for last. Two undefeateds in state play and no clear cut favorite. Run your hands together. This should be a great day.