That’s the streak the Stowe boys soccer team is on, after claiming yet another state championship last Saturday.
The Raiders, ranked No. 1 and unbeaten on the year, outlasted a game squad from No. 2 Middlebury, 2-0, to win the Division 2 state championship.
Stowe had won the past seven Division 3 state titles before moving up a weight division this fall.
A different division, and tougher opponents, still yielded the same result, as the Raiders ran their streak to eight straight crowns on the strength of another shutout from junior goalie Isaiah Schaefer-Geiger and two second-half goals from senior striker Rai Bleda-Vilalta.
“I have no words,” Schaefer-Geiger said after the win. “To be in D-3 last year, and to be able to win the D-2 title this year, it was something special.”
Along with eight straight championships, Stowe has claimed a boys soccer title in 11 of the past 13 seasons, dating back to 2007. Despite claiming almost a dozen titles in that decade plus of dominance, the Raiders had never gone unbeaten.
That is, until this year.
Stowe improved to 17-0-1 with the win over Middlebury, with a draw against U-32 as the only blemish on their record.
“Twenty-five years in the game, I’ve never been undefeated in anything,” Stowe coach Brian Buczek said after the win. “Basketball, baseball, soccer, coaching or playing.”
“This is probably the most special thing that has ever been put together by a team I’ve been a part of,” he said.
Defense wins championship
Schaefer-Geiger, who finished with four saves in the state title game, and the Stowe defense have been stellar all year, allowing only four goals total.
That lockdown defense was on full display during the first half Saturday, as the Raiders squashed offensive chances by a Middlebury squad that was able to keep Stowe off the board, and a bit off balance.
A shorthanded Stowe squad had lost a 1-0 scrimmage to Middlebury in the preseason, and “they got a lot better,” Buczek said. “I thought they owned the better of play in the first half, and really confused us for the better part of 40 minute.”
The two squads swapped possession and body blows during much of the first half, but neither created many actual scoring chances.
A free kick for Stowe 13 minutes into the game was cleared by Middlebury, which counterattacked only to see the shot sail over the goal.
A shot by Stowe’s Michael Pelletier midway through the half sailed wide, and Schaefer-Geiger came charging out to snuff out a Middlebury attack with 18 minutes to play in the half.
The two squads traded free and corner kicks until the clock read 6:53, when the referees awarded Middlebury a penalty kick. The refs ruled a Middlebury player was taken down inside the 18-yard box as Schaefer-Geiger came out to intercept a ball in the air.
“I didn’t really agree with the call,” the Stowe keeper said. “But once it’s called, you can’t do anything about it.”
So, he focused on preparing himself for the penalty kick, taken by Middlebury’s Owen Palcsik.
“I just took a deep breath and got in the right mindset,” Schaefer-Geiger said. For some reason, he was seeing Palcsik shooting to his left, at the right post. That’s exactly where the senior striker went, driving a hard, low shot, but Schaefer-Geiger made a hard dive to his left and got a glove on it to punch the ball out, preserving the 0-0 tie as his teammates rushed him to celebrate.
“His weight was that way, so I got ready and was able to save it,” Schaefer-Geiger said.
“I was pretty comfortable that he was going to save it,” Bleda-Vilalta said.
Buczek had faith in his keeper, who moved to Stowe this year from Washington, even though Schaefer-Geiger didn’t fare well on penalty kicks in practice the day before the title tilt.
Stowe picked out its seven shooters who would take penalty kicks in the title game if the game was decided that way, and all seven practiced taking shots on their own keeper.
“He didn’t make a save yesterday,” Buczek laughed. “They all scored goals on him; he didn’t get a hand on one.”
With that being said, “I’d take our goalkeeper over anyone, in any situation. That’s the kind of concentration he’s had all season,” Buczek said. “He had to guess right today. The player went the opposite direction a player with a right-footed shot should go. He just makes these unbelievable saves.”
A goal on Middlebury’s penalty kick could have turned momentum fully in its favor, and Buczek thought his goalie “kept us in it.”
Schaefer-Geiger’s save kept things scoreless going into the half. Stowe finally broke through 11 minutes after play resumed when Bleda-Vilalta was taken down by a Middlebury defender in the middle third of the field, earning Stowe a free kick.
Senior captain Alex Reichelt took the kick, serving the ball into the 6-yard box, where another Stowe captain, Alex Tilgner, got a head onto it, and sent it bouncing across the front of the goal for a hard-charging Bleda-Vilalta to bury it in the back of the net.
“I was just crashing on the net, and the ball came from one of our guys and I was just there at the right time,” Bleda-Vilalta said.
The Raiders ramped up the pressure on the Middlebury goal after that, pressing for a second score and stifling counterattacks while using Schaefer-Geiger as a safety outlet to get the offense started.
That pressure paid of with just under 14 minutes to play, when Jules Gershman, who typically plays defense but moved up to midfield for the second half, served a ball to Bleda-Vilalta, who burned his defender and then the goaltender for the insurance score and his 14th goal of the season.
“Jules had a super nice ball to me with some backspin,” Bleda-Vilalta said. “I got my body in front of the defender, took a touch and had a nice shot.”
Buczek and his assistant coach Gordon Dixon formulated a plan at the half to counter what Middlebury had been doing before the break.
“Gordon wanted Jules to move up out of the back, and I wanted us to have some wide play,” Buczek said, and those moves were successful.
“We were trying to do too much individually in the first half,” he said. “As soon as we started sharing the ball and passing it around, that’s when we started seeing some success.”
Desperate to get back within one after that, Middlebury began pressing forward, but Schaefer-Geiger and the Stowe defense put the clamps on, holding them scoreless until the final horn sounded and the Stowe Raiders were state champs once again.
A championship run
Stowe won all four of its playoff games this fall by two-goal margins. The Raiders beat No. 16 Stratton 2-0 in the opening round, No. 9 Woodstock 2-0 in the quarterfinals, and No. 4 Milton 3-1 in the semifinals. Stowe outscored its opposition 55-4 in its 18 regular-season and playoff games, allowing goals only to Thetford, Milton and Peoples Academy.
A total of 15 shutouts is impressive, and while Schaefer-Geiger may have earned a lot of the acclaim for those, he gives his defense much of the credit for that success.
“I think it’s the best defense, probably in the state and at least in our division,” he said. “The four of them held it down every single game. I had shutouts, but it was thanks to them.”
The junior wasn’t even sure if he would be the starting keeper on the team, since there are two other goalies on the roster. He came into the preseason with no expectations, but earned the starting nod from Buczek.
“I just wanted to play soccer, and I came out for tryouts and made the team,” he said.
The chance to go undefeated was on the players’ minds as the season progressed, but it wasn’t necessarily a goal they set.
“We talked about it a bit, but there was always more we had to go, a next game with more to do,” Schaefer-Geiger said.
“We knew we were a talented team from the start,” Bleda-Vilalta said, but they knew the team needed to mesh well together to have the most success.
“We ended up doing that really well. We built a really great relationship between all of us and it gave us a successful season,” he added.
This Stowe wanted to win a final title for Buczek, who is retiring at the end of the year so he can watch his son play more.
“We definitely wanted to do it for him,” Bleda-Vilalta said. “He’s been such a good coach to us and done a lot for us. We definitely didn’t want to let him down.”
Buczek is looking at his step back from Stowe soccer as a bittersweet moment, and he gives tremendous credit to his players.
“Their dedication in practice to work hard” was amazing, he said. During one stretch in the middle of the year, the team really “didn’t feel like we were playing to our capacity.”
It wasn’t Buczek, but the players, who corrected that.
“They ramped up how they came to practice every day,” he said. “This [season] is definitely on their shoulders.”
“Now, I guess there’s nothing left to do,” Schaeffer-Geiger said with a smile before going to celebrate with his teammates Saturday.