Taking a look at the Vermont Principals’ Association Division I girls hockey rankings, you can be forgiven if you thought you had clicked on the wrong page.
Sitting in the top two spots in the rankings is not defending champion Essex or runner-up BFA-St. Albans or even the always dangerous Spaulding.
No, the teams occupying the top two spots in D-I halfway through the season are Northfield and Middlebury.
The Marauders compete in Division III or IV for almost every other sport, but this season Northfield made the move to D-I in girls hockey and has not skipped a beat.
Middlebury, last season’s D-II state champs, also made the leap to the higher division this season.
Essex’s Amanda Sinkewicz (4) skates wit the puck past Northfield’s Lindsey Bergeron (10) during the girls hockey game between Northfield and Essex on Monday night.
“There’s much more parity in D-I than I might have anticipated,” Essex coach John Maddalena said. “I knew from the youth levels that Middlebury and Northfield were going to be good, I just didn’t think they were going to be this good.”
Maddalena’s Hornets make an appearance at No. 3 in the rankings, but sitting at No. 4 is another D-II transfer, Burr and Burton, which fell to the Tigers in the state title game last season.
It has been quite a start to the season for the Marauders, Tigers and Bulldogs. Northfield holds a 10-2 record, with its only losses coming to Middlebury and Essex, the latter in Monday’s 1-0 showdown.
“Last year, with our schedule, we grabbed D-I games, as many as we could get, kind of prepping for what was coming,” Northfield coach Chris Amell said. “Our numbers still explode after this, this is the smallest the team will be in the next five years.
“We knew with the numbers coming, it was the time to make the move.”
The Tigers are 9-2 and beat the Hornets last week. The Bulldogs, perhaps the most surprising of the three, are 7-3 and count a 3-2 victory over BFA-St. Albans among their wins.
The three coaches, who competed against each other all season in D-II last year, say there are similarities between the programs that have led to all them having success.
“All three teams are well-coached,” said Amell. “Discipline and we all play the systems that we teach well. Each system is very different, but each team plays their system well. “
The well-coached groups all have a strong leadership group to rely on — Kristen Dukette and Claudia Gee in Northfield; Angela Carone in Middlebury; Aggie Bisselle at Burr and Burton.
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The leadership also comes with solid cores that have played together all the way down to successful youth teams.
“It starts at the youth level,” Burr and Burton coach Ed Lewicki said. “If you can have success there and continue to grow when you get to the high school level, you can compete with anybody.
“Our senior class has played in a lot of championships, from U-12 on. That has allowed us to compete, they rise to the occasion, they are not used to losing.”
The similarities between the three programs — along with some strong factors for the individual programs; team speed for Northfield, depth for Middlebury, grittiness for Burr and Burton — have allowed a seamless transition to the higher division.
“We were hoping that the success would be there,” Amell said. “I knew all three teams were competitive. Could we have predicted second, third and fourth, or whatever it is now, probably not. But we certainly expected to compete.”
While the season has started well, the three coaches did admit to some adjustments coming from the lower division, mainly the idea that there are no easy games at the D-I level.
“In Division II, there are games that you can take off, it’s just the nature of the smaller schools, they sometimes don’t have the quality to compete every night,” Lewicki said. “In Division I, you don’t have a night off.”
The success of Northfield, Middlebury and BBA has made D-I more competitive, too. With the high level of play from those three teams, the other five programs — Essex, BFA-St. Albans, Spaulding, Rutland and South Burlington — also find themselves in a close game every night.
“You can’t take anyone for granted,” said Maddalena. “It’s totally up for grabs. Anyone of these teams could win.”
Nightly battles could affect the teams as the season progresses, mainly because, with smaller schools sizes, there aren’t as many players to pull from.
Northfield and Burr and Burton, in particular, can only roll two lines because of small squads, a disadvantage against squads such as Essex and BFA, both of whom regularly send out three or four lines of players.
“In Division I you have to play 45 minutes of hockey,” Middlebury coach Matt Brush said. “You have to play a complete game and limit your mistakes and take advantage of your opportunities.
“The small moments in a game matter more than they did last year.”