Who are the best of the best? That’s the question for the summer of 2015.
When you think of a specific Vermont high school sport, who comes to mind as the team to beat, year in and year out? Whose trophy case is bursting at the seams? What opponent do teams celebrate beating a little more than the rest — even in the regular season?
After scouring the Vermont Principals’ Association record books, tallying up the championships, the state final appearances, the semifinal berths, we think we have assembled a list of 15 worthy contenders for the title of the state’s top program of the past 15 years.
Who are the out-and-out powerhouses we found dotting the high school sports landscape? That requires a drumroll …
Burlington boys basketball
•When talking about Vermont high school boys basketball in a historical context, the Burlington Seahorses, with their state-record 20 titles and 34 finals appearances, figure prominently. The last 15 years are no exception.
The boys from Buck Hard Gym have reached the Division I Final Four 11 times, appeared in nine title games and captured four championships — all but one of each under current coach Matt Johnson.
Between 2003 and 2010, they failed to appear in the state final just once, powered by a trio of future Division I college players in Tyrone Conley, Joe O’Shea and Clancy Rugg. The height of the run included a 46-game winning streak and a series of three straight championship games against archrival Rice.
After missing out on trips to Patrick Gym in 2011 and 2012 — quarterfinal losses have become markers of rebuilding years for success-rich Burlington — the Seahorses have featured in the past three Final Fours and advanced to this year’s final with Rice.
Champlain Valley girls soccer
•There’s a reason no one argues with Champlain Valley Union High School’s reputation as Vermont’s “Soccer Central.” Its collection of trophies, banners and All-Americans presents a pretty bulletproof case.
But, if numbers are more your thing, here’s another persuasive measure: 217-21-21.
Translated? That’s the record for the CVU girls soccer team over the past 15 seasons — a run in which the Redhawks have won 83.8 percent of their games and, yes, drawn as many games as they’ve lost. That stretch also includes trips to 13 semifinals, 10 state finals and eight Division I championships. And the recent results for the Hinesburg school are as dominant as ever.
Since taking over for longtime coach Brad Parker, who capped his tenure with back-to-back crowns, Stan Williams has led the Redhawks to back-to-back undefeated seasons, extending the program’s multi-year winning streak to 44 games and counting. In 2013 the Redhawks outscored opponents by a staggering 72-1 margin and in 2014 they became just the second D-I squad to cap a four-peat.
Mount Anthony wrestling
•Mount Anthony Union High School’s wrestling program doesn’t just belong in the discussion of Vermont dynasties, it is a fixture on the national stage as well. Winning 27 state championships in a row will do that.
Since the turn of the century, coach Scott Legacy’s Patriots are the only squad to win the state championship, along the way setting a national record for consecutive wrestling crowns (they passed it with No. 20). That in-state dominance isn’t limited to title-time, either. MAU hasn’t lost to a Vermont opponent since 1989 and routinely storms through its regular season — filled with matches against New England’s top teams — unbeaten.
Three Mount Anthony wrestlers since 2000 have laid claim to the Vermont record for victories, the most recent being four-time state champion Troy Gassaway this year. The Patriots have captured the New England crown five times in that same span and been regional runners-up four other times.
Peoples girls soccer
•To lift a line from a 2012 Free Press story on the success of the Peoples Academy girls soccer team, one that remains as applicable now as then:
“Two sure things during the autumn months in the quaint town of Morrisville in Central Vermont: Amazing foliage and a title-contending girls soccer team.”
Under coach Jim Eisenhardt, who took over the program in the fall of 2000, the Wolves have supplanted Northfield as the resident juggernaut in Division III. The rise has been meteoric, too. Before 2000, Peoples owned zero state championships and had appeared in just one state final (1989). Since then, the team has made the semifinals a dozen times, claimed seven state crowns in eight trips to the title game and compiled a record of 193-50-7.
That run includes the 2012 team for the ages, which outscored foes 113-4 and earned a shout in the discussion for the state’s best team — regardless of division. Their current run of four straight championships (and six in seven years) featured a 50-game winning streak from 2011 through 2013. And last year’s crown, after the graduation of all-time leading scorer Katie Stames, might have been the most satisfying of the bunch, doing so as the No. 5 seed and pitching four straight shutouts.
Rice boys basketball
•It’s hard to fathom that when Rice Memorial won the Division I boys basketball championship in 2007, snapping a seven-year drought, that it was just the second in 22 years for the tradition-soaked program.
That’s because, since then, the Green Knights have found another gear.
Starting with that title run, the first under current coach Paul Pecor, Rice has appeared in every state final except one (2010) and snapped up six trophies. The most recent crown capped an unprecedented three-peat for the South Burlington school.
The past decade and a half has been bookended by high-profile leading duos — Kyle Cieplicki and Chris Cayole in the early 2000s, Ben Shungu and Kendrick Gray the last two winters — and spanned 13 Final Four appearances, more than any other D-I school. And, fittingly, the Green Knights’ record since 2000: An eye-popping 286-65, just edging crosstown rival Burlington (278-71).
BFA-St. Albans girls ice hockey
•In a sport that has seen only two Division I title winners, there was bound to be a program that dominated high school girls hockey in Vermont. That program is BFA-St. Albans.
Girls hockey, which came into existence in 2002, saw one team win the D-I crown for the first five years. The Comets captured all of them. In the first decade of D-I girls hockey, BFA won eight of the titles.
In 14 seasons, they are 225-64-25. The Comets have appeared in the semifinals every year with an 11-3 record. In their 11 title game appearances, the Comets have walked away with nine titles.
In that time period, BFA has also produced four Burlington Free Press Miss Hockeys and roll out strong skating, four-line teams every season, making their success hard to match.
Champlain Valley boys lacrosse
•For the last three years, no matter the regular-season record, the Champlain Valley Union boys lacrosse team has been unbeatable once the playoffs start.
The result: three Division I state championships.
The recent success for the Redhawks is just a continuation for a program that has won six titles in a 15-year-run. It just seems a bit off to not see the red and white on a field at the end of the high school lacrosse season.
CVU has been in 10 title games in the last 15 seasons, doing it with dominating seasons (18-1 in 2011) or just finding a way (2015 anyone?).
Before 2001, the Redhawks were a middle-of-the-road team. After the turn of the century? The best team in boys lacrosse, winning 190 games in 15 years and, with four players on their way to Division I college programs, CVU appears to have a bright future.
•My apologies to the Champlain Valley Union girls soccer team (winners of 44 games in a row) but it has a ways to go before catching the Lyndon Institute softball squad.
The Vikings won 79 games in a row from 2005 to 2009, capturing four straight Division II state titles and establishing themselves as the strongest softball program of the last 15 years.
The four championships in a row is the highlight of a run that has seen Lyndon appear in eight title games, win five crowns and rack up a 232-36 record. The Vikings have won almost 87 percent of the games they have played, the best winning percentage of the 15 teams mentioned here.
Since 2001, Lyndon has not had a losing season — in fact, the program hasn’t been below .500 since 1986. That strength has led to 11 title-game appearances and seven titles, but the Vikings have done the bulk of their damage in the last 15 years.
It is all that surprising, with BFA-St. Albans and Essex in the mix for top softball programs, Lyndon stood out from the pack?
South Burlington boys tennis
•The state of high school boys tennis in Vermont starts and ends with South Burlington.
The numbers are almost unbelievable. Twenty-two state titles in the program’s 38-year history. Twelve of the last 15 Division I state championships. Four crowns in a row.
The numbers don’t even tell the whole story. The Rebels are nearly unbeatable. In the last four years they have lost two matches … total. Teams don’t game-plan how to beat South Burlington, they game-plan how to make it close.
In the last 15 years, the Rebels have compiled a record of 210-35, good for an 86 percent winning percentage.
But South Burlington just keeps churning out state championships and show no sign of stopping.
Stowe field hockey
•History says Stowe field hockey has a 50-50 shot at reaching the Division III final. In the 45 years, Stowe has appeared in half of the title games.
Recent years, as in the last 15 seasons, Stowe has only bettered those odds.
The Raiders have won seven D-III titles, including a run of four in a row from 2004 to 2007, and appeared in 12 title games. They also advanced to nine straight finals from 2001 to 2009. Let me rephrase that, in the last 15 years, only three D-III finals have not featured Stowe.
The Raiders did not do this by going undefeated every year. No matter the record in the regular season, Stowe still finds a way to success in the postseason and the title game — though the last 15 years has seen a three-year run where the program lost only one game (2005-2007). Overall, the Raiders have won 18 titles, a resume unmatched in Vermont field hockey.
CVU boys soccer
•Perhaps former star midfielder and coach T.J. Mead summed up best the annual pressure at “Soccer Central.”
“If we win a championship, it’s no big deal. If we lose a championship, it’s headlining news, said Mead in 2009, when as a fourth-year coach, guided the Champlain Valley Union boys soccer team to the Division I crown.
Given the framework of our feature, CVU’s accomplishments are certainly headlining news.
Take the titles (8), title-game (10) and semifinal (11) appearances or the gaudy overall record (214-27-14) and winning percentage (.84) and the numbers are unmatched … except when compared to the other soccer powerhouse on Hinesburg turf.
The Redhawks’ sterling run, however, had two outliers. They lost as the No. 1 seed in the playdowns and quarterfinals in 2000 and 2001, respectively, following penalty-kick shootouts. Those stunning losses only fueled what was to follow: Six straight crowns — they shared the 2003 title with BFA-St. Albans — and a pair of undefeated seasons (2004, 2007), all without missing a beat when legendary coach Dan Shepardson handed the program over to Mead, his former player, in 2006.
While CVU missed out on a finals appearance in 2014, first-year coach Katie Mack’s Redhawks won a dozen games, the sixth straight fall the program won at least that many matches.
CVU girls XC running
•The Champlain Valley Union girls cross-country running team ended a 15-year title drought between its first and second crowns in 2003.
The program’s trophy case has since grown.
The Redhawks have won 11 of the last 12 Division I crowns, including six straight. But CVU’s success on local, hilly terrain extends outside of Vermont as well. CVU’s title run also marked the start as a regional power.
CVU captured the 2003 New England championship, finished second the next two years and third in 2006 before surging to back-to-back crowns in 2010 and 2011 while earning trips to Nike Team Nationals. The Redhawks also took third at N.E. in 2012.
But what drives CVU’s dominance? The program’s pack running and depth.
For example, while only three CVU runners since 2003 have claimed the D-I individual race at states, log-jam finishes are routine for the Redhawks. At the 2010 state meet, five harriers placed in the top 10, including Nos. 3-6 and, a year later, all seven runners finished in the top 11 (the first five across count in team scoring).
A dynasty that remains as strong as it did a dozen years ago, CVU has turned Vermont’s colorful backdrop into a sea of red and white.
Essex boys hockey
•When Essex outlasted South Burlington in triple overtime for the Division I boys hockey crown in March, the Hornets, finally, returned to glory.
Three recent title-game losses and seven years without claiming the crown can feel like a drought for a bonafide program like Essex.
But 2015 served as a nice bookend for Essex to make our list. The Hornets opened the 21st century with a title behind Joe Galdi, one of four Essex players to be named the Burlington Free Press’ Mr. Hockey since 2001.
After an 11-12 aberration in 2001-02 and a title-game loss the next year, Essex went undefeated in 2003-04 and then seized three straight titles from 2006-08.
In all, during the 15 years, Essex compiled a 258-62-17 record with six D-I crowns, 10 title-game appearances and 13 trips to the semifinals.
One number, though, we couldn’t track down: The packs of gum chewed by long-time coach Bill O’Neil, who has been at the helm for all 14 of Essex’s titles.
Essex girls track and field
•A common saying among track and field coaches: “Field events win state championships.”
In Vermont, an addendum to that rule: “…when Essex doesn’t finish first.”
A program that once won 13 straight titles from 1985-1997, the Essex girls have since continued a similar run only Mount Anthony wrestling has bettered.
The Hornets, knocked off by St. Johnsbury at the Division I championships in June, have claimed 12 titles since 2001. The run includes six straight from 2005-2010, highlighted by eye-popping scoring totals of 197.5 and 191 in 2007 and 2008, respectively. The 2007 victory, for example, was by a margin of 131.5 points.
From Ashley Wilson in the sprints and Sarah Sherman in the jumps to Katie Polakowski in the hurdles and current Hornet Amanda Sinkewicz in the throws, Essex has its shares of individual champions, but depth — the ability to score points in all 18 events at a state meet — is the program’s hallmark.
•Defined by a gritty, unselfish approach led by the guys in the trenches, Hartford’s run from 2007-2012 is arguably the best stretch for a Vermont high school football program.
Hartford, a Division II program until the mid-90s, seized five titles including the first three-peat in D-I history, claimed back-to-back perfect seasons and owned a 27-game winning streak.
Not bad for a school with an enrollment, boys and girls, of less than 600.
Under coach Mike Stone, who stepped down from his three-decade post in June 2014, the Hurricanes collected 11 state titles. But from 2000 on, Stone’s Hurricanes rose to another level with seven finals berths and 11 semifinal appearances to go along with their five crowns.
At their peak, in the two perfect seasons, the Hurricanes rolled up 915 points (22 games), and churned out 4,056 yards on the ground in 2012, a balanced power attack led by lineman Michael Dulac, the Burlington Free Press’ football player of the year.