Going into Saturday’s Division 3 championship game, the Stowe High field hockey team had played in 30 title matches, and won half of them.
Now, it’s slightly less than half of them.
Second-seeded Stowe fell 2-0 to a fourth-seeded St. Johnsbury team that seemed to have come out of nowhere, but played the artificial turf at the University of Vermont like seasoned veterans.
First-year Stowe coach Ali Vigneau said her girls’ St. Johnsbury opponents were exactly what they expected. The Hilltoppers gave Stowe (11-3-1 in the regular season) one of its losses and its tie. Could this be the start of a new marquee matchup?
“I know, right? Where did this come from?” Vigneau said. “I think that could be a new rivalry in field hockey.”
Something else was familiar about Saturday’s game: the cruddy weather. A cold rain that started as a drizzle turned to shizzle as the late morning turned to midday, the temperature dipped below 40 degrees, and the raindrops thickened.
Field hockey has been a sanctioned Vermont high school sport for 45 years, which means Stowe has made it to the final game two-thirds of the entire time it’s been a sport. On the other hand, St. Johnsbury, which has played in all three divisions over the years, had never made it to the finals.
Saturday’s game was a tale of two halves, as the girls found their footing and tested each other’s defenses, a few shots here and there. The ball looked like it had comic-book action lines, as water sprayed off it as the players knocked it around.
St. Johnsbury controlled the tempo for the opening dozen minutes, with its taller forwards, Lilly Laufenberg and Jane Goodrich, pushing, passing, prodding. Stowe’s taller girls, Rachel Cunningham and Mackie Eagan, managed to protect goaltender Andrea Jackman until Stowe’s forwards found their footing.
Stowe started streaking, with breakaways that got the crowd pumped up but ultimately went nowhere when the forwards found no one to pass to.
Sensing the momentum tilting toward the Raiders, the St. Johnsbury coach called a timeout late in the first half to slow things down and let everyone sit around for a bit and get drenched.
The second half started much the same, with St. Johnsbury controlling. To combat that, Vigneau began subbing in players on short rotation to give some of her runners a reprieve.
To combat that, St. Johnsbury started firing.
In the net, Jackman, who was blessed with good backfield protection all through the first half, started getting shelled.
One shot caromed off Jackman’s shin guards and was controlled by Michaela Roy, who fed it to Morgan Belknap for a score.
The Hilltoppers dominated from then on, controlling nearly all the corners, so much so that it started to resemble target practice more than a game, with Alexis Duranleau adding another goal, and Vigneau continuing to feed the field fresh legs.
After the game, it was tears mixing with rain, except for Jackman, who looked mildly put out, as if she wanted a third period. That’s the thing with goalies — because they are the last thing keeping the ball out of the net, they can tend to shoulder all the blame. Unless they have a team that shares.
“She has full support of every girl on the team. It has to go through every single girl on the field before it gets to her,” Vigneau said.
Stowe’s generosity was noticed by others. The athletic director at Missisquoi Valley Union School, which lost to Stowe on penalty shots in an epic double-overtime 2-2 semifinal, wrote a letter to the Stowe administration, praising the Raiders for their poise and generosity.
“I think they played a great game,” Vigneau said of her girls. “They did everything I asked of them, and put everything out there. Win or lose, hold your head high, play the game that you want to play.”