CASTLETON – The long history of the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl is decidedly in New Hampshire’s favor. And the numbers bare an unflattering picture for Vermont.
New Hampshire leads the series 46-13-2, an edge that has ballooned with 14 straight victories and counting after last summer’s 42-6 pasting. Since Vermont’s last win, a high-scoring shootout in 2000, the Green Mountain State has tallied 151 points; New Hampshire has accrued 518.
So how does Vermont finally end a losing streak that began when players last suited up for their high school teams in the 20th century?
“We haven’t talked about it,” said Vermont coach Dennis Smith earlier this week. “It’s just like the high school team at Middlebury, we don’t even talk about (winning and losing).
“Right now it’s becoming a better football team each and every day, executing better, making sure we know what we are supposed to do offensively and defensively so come Saturday we are not thinking, we are just playing the game of football,” the Middlebury coach said.
Vermont and New Hampshire hook up Saturday afternoon in the 62nd annual gridiron all-star classic between recently graduated seniors of the two neighboring states. Game time is 5:30 p.m. at Castleton University’s Spartan Stadium.
With New Hampshire’s talent pool limited — players had to make a choice between Shrine and the East-West game for the first time — and Vermont top-heavy with familiar faces from Middlebury’s unblemished two-year run, Saturday’s outcome might unfold differently than in recent, one-sided years.
“The way they structured the game this year is a little different, which is fine. I’ve read all the articles, talking about how we’ve brought a B or C team up here and I don’t see it,” said New Hampshire coach Greg Gush of Litchfield’s Campbell. “All the athletes that were picked for that other all-star game are incredible athletes and we picked a team, we picked a group of players we felt strongly about.
“I wouldn’t trade any one of our players we have on our roster.”
New Hampshire will bring an uptempo spread offense. Vermont counters with a no-huddle triple-option attack Middlebury has turned into its calling card for decades.
“There are no secrets. It becomes X’s on X’s and O’s on O’s and athletes on athletes,” Smith said. “Just put the kids in the right place and if you are in the right place, if your kid is as good as theirs, we’ll make plays.”
RELATED SHRINE COVERAGE
The abundance of Middlebury Tigers — seven players on the roster plus Smith and his coaching staff — has made Shrine week a smooth transition as Vermont learns the complexities and nuances of the two-time Division I champion’s systems, especially the option.
“We are all mini-coaches in a way, sharing our knowledge to other players at our positions,” Middlebury’s Cullen Hathaway said.
“These kids are grasping it pretty quickly. We have a bunch of smart kids who are picking it up real fast,” said Middlebury quarterback Austin Robinson, who will start under center.
Joining Robinson in the backfield will include speedsters Hathaway and Rice’s Anthony Phillip. Bellows Falls’ Carson Fullam, a late addition, Lyndon’s Josh Guyer and another Middlebury burner Bobby Ritter, who’s likely to play more on the defensive side, should get some touches in a diverse, athletic backfield.
“The one thing about this offense, it doesn’t matter if they are bigger, stronger or faster than us, we make them make decisions and take whatever they give us,” said Robinson, the Free Press’ 2014 football player of the year.
Given Robinson’s mastery of Middlebury’s system, Smith wasn’t going to take any chances at quarterback for Shrine. The option at Middlebury, says Smith, takes a couple years to learn.
“It’s tough to have a new quarterback work in our system,” Smith said. “They can do everything in our system except the option part.”
Quarterbacks like Chris Jansen, who also shined as a defensive end at Rice, and St. Johnsbury’s Colton Hudson will be featured more on the other side of the ball.
If there is a defensive player who saw Middlebury’s offense at its finest, Colchester linebacker Grant Cummings might raise his hand first. The Tigers put up 34 points in a Week 3 matchup and then 42 more in the semifinals, each win in shutout fashion.
“Their quarterback and coach working together, that combo, and Ritter and Hathaway have been playing together for the last few years,” Cummings said. “I’m pretty confident about them. I have no doubts that they will show us something good on Saturday.”
Notes: Guyer is the lone Lyndon representative in today’s Shrine game. The significance? He will be the fourth Guyer to play in the Shrine game, joining his father, Mike, and two older brothers, Adrian and Nick. A feature in Friday’s Caledonian Record highlighted the Guyers. … Rice’s Phillip plans to play baseball at Division I San Diego State. … The game can be heard on the Shrine Radio Network, with Vermont’s Jack Healey and New Hampshire’s Bob Lipman calling the action. Vermont stations include 94.5-FM and 1400-AM in the Upper Valley, 94.5-FM in Rutland and Lakes Region radio in Poultney. … Castleton was picked for this year’s site as Dartmouth College’s Memorial Field, the longtime host, undergoes renovations.
Bellows Falls: Carson Fullam
BFA-Fairfax: Luke Langelier, Sean Stergas
Burr and Burton: Ryan Smith
Champlain Valley: Sam Lewis
Colchester: Grant Cummings
Fair Haven: Jake Carter, Ian Misencik
Hartford: John Bielicki, Taylor Larmie, Willy Todt
Lyndon: Josh Guyer
Middlebury: Cullen Hathaway, Nathan Lalonde, Lucas Plouffe, Bobby Ritter, Austin Robinson, Justin Stone, Connor Quinn
Mill River: Jake Pitts
Mount Anthony: Tyler Mattison, Perle Webb
Otter Valley: Adam Sherwin, John Winslow
Poultney: Sam White
Rice: John Boardman, Chris Jansen, Charlie Meli, Anthony Phillip
Rutland: Jordan Godfrey
Spaulding: Cam Davis
St. Johnsbury: Ronnie Gobin, Dakota Holbrook, Colton Hudson, Caleb Stowell
Woodstock: Will Gault
62nd Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl
•Teams: Vermont vs. New Hampshire
•Site: Castleton University’s Spartan Stadium
•Today’s game time: 5:30 p.m. kickoff
•Live coverage: Follow Alex Abrami’s coverage of today’s game on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aabrami5
Contact Alex Abrami at 660-1848 or firstname.lastname@example.org.