As Nate Rice goes, so go the Stowe High Raiders.
The senior goalie turned in a memorable season with the boys lacrosse team, stacking up double-digit saves in nearly every game while helping to guide Stowe to a 9-4 regular season record.
Rice and the fourth-ranked Raiders may have saved their best for last though. The cooperative team from Peoples Academy-Stowe rode Rice’s hot hand in net and a balanced offense to a 9-7 win over No. 3 Harwood in the Division 2 state championship last Friday night, June 7, at the University of Vermont’s Virtue Field.
“Nate had the game of his life,” said Stowe senior captain Kevin Crawford.
How well-matched could these teams be? In their games this season, each won on the other’s field. They were the last two Division 2 champions — Stowe beat Harwood 13-10 for the 2017 title, and Harwood went undefeated and thrashed U-32 10-1 in the 2018 title game.
This year’s win gives Stowe two championships in three years.
And how good was Nathan Rice? He made 19 saves, spearheading a defense that held the high-powered Highlanders in check. Harwood had scored in double figures in nine straight games before the title matchup.
But stats don’t quite tell the whole story about Rice’s performance.
Just ask Harwood head coach Russell Beilke.
“He was a wall. Anything down low, he just repelled like crazy. That young man had a phenomenal game,” Beilke said.
“In my opinion, he won the game for Stowe. Not to take anything away from anyone else, but he would have gotten my vote for most valuable player,” Beilke said.
“The one who really kept us in it today was our goalie, Nate,” Stowe coach Neil Handwerger said after the game. “The kid stood on his head” to make some of his saves.
Scoring machine Ely Kalkstein and the rest of the Harwood offense posed a daunting challenge, but Handwerger wanted his team to focus on what they do best, not changing strategy to match Harwood.
“We were playing our game. We knew we could compete with anyone in the state if we played four quarters of lacrosse, and today we played four quarters of lacrosse,” he said.
The Raiders finish the season 13-4; Harwood ends the spring 12-4.
Starting slow, ending strong
Rice and Harwood goalie Sully O’Hara, who made 14 saves, were both on top of their games in a low-scoring first half that ended 2-2.
Stowe took a 2-1 lead in the first quarter, with goals by Crawford and freshman Hans Huber sandwiched around Kalkstein’s first goal of the game. Jacob Wells tied the score early in the second quarter.
The two squads played more than 10 minutes of scoreless lacrosse after that, despite a couple of close calls and penalties on both sides.
The third quarter quickly turned into a shootout, as teams traded haymakers, momentum and the lead.
Stowe took a 4-2 lead on goals by Cam Anderson and Clark Brown, but Harwood scored three straight, courtesy of Finn O’Hara, Jake Green and Jake Lynn.
Huber tied it up midway through the third quarter, but O’Hara scored his second goal 90 seconds later.
“In lacrosse, you can go down three or four goals, and in a matter of minutes that can turn around,” Beilke said about the back-and-forth third quarter. “All season long, it’s taken us over a quarter to get going, and once again that proved to be true.”
Stowe’s Nick Mitchell made it 6-6 with two minutes left in the quarter, and Crawford’s second goal gave Stowe a 7-6 lead 36 seconds before the quarter ended.
Things quieted down for a bit, but Stowe seized momentum midway through the quarter. Freshman midfielder Luke Farley fired a long shot past Sully O’Hara for an 8-6 lead. Three minutes later Clark Brown took advantage of Harwood’s focus on Stowe’s Jace Boerger by splitting a pair of defenders, scoring a diving goal, and giving the Raiders a 9-6 lead.
Each team drew a few penalties in the final six minutes of play, as the Highlanders pushed hard to get back into the game and Stowe pushed just as hard to keep them off the board.
Kalkstein eventually did score with 1:43 left, but Harwood could get no closer than 9-7.
“I thought we had a chance all the way up until the last couple minutes,” Beilke said. “To our boys’ credit, and to Stowe’s, that game was not over until there was under a minute left.”
The game ended when Boerger collected the ball in Stowe’s end, outpaced a pair of Harwood defenders, and ran out the clock behind the Harwood net.
Both goalies turned in big saves in key moments.
Sully O’Hara stopped Crawford on a breakaway to keep it 1-1. In the fourth quarter, he made another stellar save after a big offensive push by Boerger, Huber and Brown, and then stonewalled Huber at point-blank range.
Rice was just as good. He made several clutch saves while Stowe was playing a man down late in the first quarter. In the fourth quarter, after Stowe took the lead for good, Rice really put on a show. With Harwood pressing hard get back into the game, Rice made one key stop after another. Kalkstein scored the lone Harwood goal of the fourth quarter by firing a rocket while falling down.
Rice sees himself as just the final obstacle in a stubborn defense.
“I definitely think we have the best defense in the state,” he said. “I just save the ones that get through.”
Beilke and his players got a good look at Rice during their two regular-season matchups, but he still held them scoreless for long stretches in the finale.
“We talked about trying to go high on him,” Beilke said, and that was how Jake Green scored his goal, but for much of the game “we continued to shoot low,” and Rice made them pay with save after save.
“Their team played extremely well,” Beilke said.
With the score 9-7 with 90 seconds left, Rice made one of the biggest plays of the day.
It wasn’t a save, though.
After Harwood’s Mike Aiken fired what appeared to be a goal — it actually hit the side of the net — Rice turned and raced after the ball as it careened toward the sideline, hoping to get possession for Stowe. He picked up the ball up before it went out, but Aiken ran into him, getting a penalty for pushing that put Harwood a man down and helped to seal the game.
Rice said that, after stepping out and forcing Aiken to misfire wide, he saw the ball rolling out of play with no defender behind the net. He was hoping to “just come out and grab it and hopefully huck it down the field,” but instead, he took that push from behind that resulted in a penalty.
“I’m willing to take that hit for the flag,” he said.
Both offenses played well against tough defenses in the title game.
Kalkstein has been Harwood’s offensive spark all year, and scored a pair in the championship game.
For Stowe, it seemed players took turns leading the team in scoring, and the finale with Harwood was no different.
Crawford had scored four goals in the semifinals against Milton; against Harwood, he and Huber had two goals and an assist apiece. Brown also scored twice; Anderson, Mitchell and Farley had single scores; and Boerger had an assist.
Boerger is a scoring threat at all times, and tends to draw a lot of attention from the defense, Crawford said. That creates lots of opportunities for the rest of the Raiders.
“They overplay him and it leaves me open,” Crawford said. “I don’t go in trying to score,” but he likes to seize the opportunities created by Boerger and the rest of his teammates.
“The team played amazing,” Crawford said. “This is the first team I’ve played on where there’s no stars. Each game, it’s always an unlikely hero, always a new person.”
Kalkstein and Finn O’Hara led Harwood with two goals each; Jake Lynn and Jake Green each had a goal and an assist; Jake Wells scored the other goal and Jon O’Brien and Mike Aiken had assists.
After the game, Beilke wanted to be sure his players knew how proud he was of them, despite the loss.
“They need to hold their heads up,” he said. “They put forward everything they had throughout the game, from start to finish. I could not have been prouder, the way the handled it all.”
The win improves Stowe’s record in the Division 2 state title game to 2-1 all-time. The Raiders beat Harwood this year and in 2017; they lost the 2016 title game to Burlington. Founded in 2012, Stowe boys lacrosse has been consistently excellent, earning the No. 2 or No. 4 seed in every postseason tournament, and making it at least as far as the Division 2 quarterfinals every season.