St. Johnsbury Academy has gone from the No. 8 seed in Division I high school football a year ago to the second-ranked team with an unblemished record entering Saturday’s championship game.
The turnaround could come full circle against the last team to hand SJA a loss.
As No. 1 Middlebury (10-0) aims for back-to-back perfect seasons, St Johnsbury (10-0) hopes to end a two-decade title drought in the heavyweight tilt that features two unbeatens in the D-I final for the first time since at least 1980.
Game time is slated for 5 p.m., the third act of a championship tripleheader at Rutland High School.
“It will be the ultimate measuring stick to see how far we have come,” St. Johnsbury coach Rich Alercio said.
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A year ago, in the D-I quarterfinals, the Hilltoppers suffered a 48-6 defeat to the Tigers, who, in their typical fashion during their two-year run, rolled out to a 28-0 lead after the first quarter.
While not forgotten, the Hilltoppers, with many of the same players from 2013, are a vastly different outfit.
“Our players only know this year,” Alercio said. “All they know is they are undefeated and we are undefeated and somebody is going to lose on Saturday.
“I don’t think last year means anything to him.”
And it shouldn’t: Outscoring opponents 384 to 110 this fall, the Hilltoppers, whose last crown came in 1994 after running the table in D-II, have been an offensive juggernaut with a no-huddle spread plus a hard-working, disciplined defensive unit that has allowed only 12 points in the past four games.
Middlebury, with a 430-89 scoring edge, surges into the final behind Austin Robinson, Bobby Ritter, and Cullen Hathaway leading an explosive rushing attack.
“They have three or four guys who are faster than everybody and they make guys miss in space,” Alercio said.
And it has set up a potentially memorable title clash: Two undefeated squads who didn’t meet during the season — one chasing history, the other hoping to return to the top.
“It’s a very intriguing matchup, that’s for sure,” said Essex coach Charlie Burnett, whose squad lost 26-6 to SJA in last week’s semifinals and dropped a 41-29 decision to Middlebury in the season opener. “I don’t think there’s been a D-I final like this in maybe … forever.
“This is a dandy of a matchup to have as the showpiece of the season. I’m not going to miss it.”
SJA’s offense starts with Colton Hudson, a dual threat quarterback who has thrown for 2,410, rushed for 518, and totaled 25 touchdowns.
“He’s the real deal … he can make all the full-field reads,” Alercio said. “He makes it all work and we have a bunch of kids who add to our success.”
Those pieces include Ronnie Gobin (47 catches, 932 yards, 12 TDs) and Andrew Graciano (40 catches, 540 yards, three TDs) as the primary receiving targets and Ryan Haff (629 yards, five TDs) and Caleb Stowell (438 yards, 18 TDs) taking the bulk of the carries out of the backfield.
Stowell, a linebacker, Carlos Carrasco (lineman) and Devon Switzer (safety) are impact defensive players for SJA, which committed to an offseason workout plan and a 7-on-7 league to lay the foundation for the one-year turnaround.
“For the most part, we are a lot bigger, faster and stronger than we were,” Alercio said. “It validates everything we told the kids. If you do all the right things, great things will happen.”