One of the Burlington High School girls soccer team’s favorite rituals — one of many, both old and new — is a game played during the school day, in whatever free time can be found between classes.
Each player wears a picture of herself, the target of another player. Players are eliminated when their pictures are snatched away by an “assassin” who moves on to whomever would have been the next target. The last player wearing her own picture is the winner.
The Seahorses haven’t gotten around to playing it in the halls yet, but they’ve been playing a form of it on the field all year.
Shrugging off an 0-2 start, Burlington has defeated eight of its last nine targets in a surge toward the postseason.
Saturday’s showdown against BFA-St. Albans, also 8-3, at Buck Hard Field presents a chance to grab the No. 2 spot in the Division I standings.
“We’re such a veteran team that I knew they wouldn’t drop their heads,” said BHS coach Jeff Hayes of the early losses. “They knew deep down that they’re a good team and they had the technical ability and they had to just grind through it, keep their heads up and move forward.”
The grind starts each game with one of the oldest traditions, Hayes said, dating back more than 20 years: As pregame warm-ups wind down, the players lock arms and lay down in a circle on the field, talking through the gameplan.
Off the field, the players add their own wrinkles like trivia night at Buffalo Wild Wings, themed dress-up days — neon day, twin day, ninja day — and the assassin game.
“It’s just little traditions that I think keep our team together off the field and it really helps us on the field because we’re confident in each other,” senior co-captain Kaitlin Donahue said.
Burlington’s season stood on the brink just four games in against Essex but Maddy Feeney set up Donahue for the game-winner in overtime to get them to .500 for the first time.
“That was a big game for us. I think that turned around everyone’s mindset,” Donahue said. “Winning that game really gave us the confidence to go out and get those results that we have.”
And against Colchester last week, Donahue repaid the favor with an assist to Feeney for the 3-2 winner in double-overtime.
“When it comes close to the end of the game and it’s tied, we definitely look to each other to help each other score” Feeney said.
The latest display of the Seahorses’ resilience came Wednesday.
Down to 10 players after an early red card for a handball against South Burlington, the Seahorses scored four goals to pull away for a 5-1 victory — their highest output of the season.
“As soon as we lost a player we really picked up our game,” Hayes said. “It says a lot about the passion they have for each other.”
A slight tactical change, bringing Callie Flynn to the midfield ranks, has allowed more dynamic play from the likes of Feeney, Donahue, Sabrina Farmer, Andrea Noonan and freshman forward Abigail Feeney.
The tweak came between a one-goal loss to Rice in the season-opener and a 2-0 loss to Champlain Valley later that week in which the Seahorses held the Redhawks scoreless into the second half.
A second loss to CVU is the only setback since.
“We knew that it worked and from there we just kept working on that formation,” Donahue said. “We’ve gotten a lot better at it now.”
For the targets that have eluded the Seahorses so far — Rice and CVU — the postseason offers a second chance.
“We definitely came off kind of being the underdogs, nobody expected us to win,” Maddy Feeney said. “Winning these games, we have a lot more confidence in ourselves and we really have come together as a team. We’re all excited to play our next game.
“We’re all excited to get to the playoffs.”