The most decorated Division I high school boys soccer program is back in the final.
And the newest member of D-I will look to spoil “Soccer Central’s” return to glory.
Top-seeded Champlain Valley (16-1), making its 31st title-game appearance, has one last hurdle to clear against No. 3 and defending D-II champion Rice Memorial (15-2) in Saturday’s championship game at Burlington High School. Game time is 10 a.m.
“It’s a great feeling; for the boys it’s an opportunity to make school history,” Rice coach Matt Gazo said. “They have bought into the program and they are ready for a big fight with CVU.”
“You have to play your game and that’s what we’ve been trying to do all season,” CVU coach Katie Mack said. “Rice is strong, they are fast, they have good players. It’s a well-matched final.”
The Redhawks, in search of their first crown since 2012 and 18th overall, have yielded only four goals in 2015, leading to 13 shutouts and eight 1-0 victories through the semifinals. The “one and done” mantra continued in the playoffs — all three victories came in 1-0 decisions.
“I don’t think any coach is comfortable with a 1-0 win,” Mack said. “That being said, our team is very confident in our abilities to stay focused for 80 minutes, and regardless of the situation we can overcome a deficit or maintain a lead.”
With only one starter returning on the back line (Joe Parento) and a freshman in net (Aidan Johnson), the Redhawks went from contender to favorite. Toss in CVU’s balanced scoring of Cooper O’Connell (10 goals, Nate Coffin (five goals), Will Yakubik (five goals, four assists), Todd Boisjoli (four assists) and it’s been a season defined by the sum of its parts.
“What’s been so great, it’s been a team effort, from practice to games to systems of play,” Mack said.
Rice has been held scoreless just once this season — against, you guessed it, 1-0 to CVU in the season opener — and then put up a program-record 73 goals to break last year’s mark.
Sergio Gracia (16 goals), a foreign exchange student from Spain paces Rice’s offense, with Sam Dickin (11 goals) and Nate Cary (11 goals) hitting double-digit goals with playoff tallies. Cary also struck for late winners against Essex and South Burlington, and brothers Leland Gazo (all-state goalie) and Louis Gazo (seven goals, team assist leader) helped Rice launch a successful move to D-I.
“Until you beat the big guys on the regular basis, you don’t get that respect,” coach Gazo said. “Hopefully, we got a little more respect and we just want to compete with CVU in the finals. They are the best team in the state and we just want to give them a game.”
While Rice hopes to make history, the Redhawks’ Mack can also make another breakthrough. If CVU wins, it’s believed Mack would be the first woman to lead a boys varsity team to a Vermont state title.
“It has no significance to me and it has no significance to the team,” said Mack, who guided the Fairfax boys to the 2010 Division III final. “I personally have been around the soccer community long enough in Vermont, that it’s not a big deal.
“It’s about a team as a whole, not an individual, not the coach, not the expectations. That’s been a huge contribution to our success.”
•No. 1 Woodstock (15-2) vs. No. 6 U-32 (12-4-1), 2 p.m. at South Burlington H.S.: Although they are better than the sixth seed, the Raiders have been a team of opportunity in a postseason run to the title game. The Wasps, motivated by last year’s finals loss, are chasing the program’s first crown.
The stage is set for a juicy matchup: U-32 snagged the teams’ regular-season meeting; Woodstock knocked the Raiders out of last year’s playoffs in the semifinal round.
Ethan Scharf has been U-32’s playoff hero. Called up from the JV squad for the postseason, the sophomore entered as U-32’s goalkeeper for the penalty shootout against rival Montpelier, stopping two shots in the thrilling quarterfinal win.
Then Scharf scored the game-winner in the semifinals at Lake Region, heading in the decisive score with 14 seconds left in regulation.
“It’s just been amazing,” said coach Steve Towne, in the second year of his second stint with the Raiders.
With quality non-league opponents like Burlington, South Burlington and Woodstock, U-32’s young lineup took time to develop. They started to click, however, when Towne moved Noah Elmore (nine goals, four assists) and Gus Obeldobel (six goals, two assists) from the back line to attacking positions.
“We’ve made some changes during the season and we started applying pressure with those two guys,” Towne said.
Woodstock has outscored opponents in the playoffs by a 16-1 margin. In the semifinals, the Wasps struck for three goals against a Harwood team that had given up just four tallies this fall. Alex Crompton is one of the Woodstock’s top players.
•No. 1 Twin Valley (15-1-1) vs. No. 3 Stowe (11-4-2), 2 p.m. at Bellows Falls H.S.: Saying the Wildcats made a seamless transition from D-IV to D-III would be an understatement. But finding the Raiders back in the title game is no surprise.
The two-time reigning D-IV champion Wildcats, whose 39-game winning streak was snapped in September, will seek to end a Raider reign that includes the last three D-III crowns and six of the last eight.
“Stowe is a quality side for sure. … They are very strong and organized in the midfield with interchangeable parts,” said longtime Twin Valley coach Buddy Hayford, the 2013 national small school coach of the year. “Up top they have several threats that will demand plenty of attention.”
While Stowe’s possession flows through all-state midfielder Chris Mullin (10 goals, eight assists), the move of Chad Haggerty (11 goals, four assists) from the back to a forward position has paid off in a season tested by injuries and a brutal early schedule against Burlington, St. Johnsbury and CVU (all one-goal losses).
“We are finally healthy for the first time in six weeks. Everybody is playing, the timing couldn’t be better,” Stowe coach Brian Buczek said. “I know we are going to have a target on our back.”
Mullin has also picked up a finishing touch, with four game-winners, and Matt Schwab has added eight goals and five assists. A rock in net, veteran goalkeeper Mark Infante has posted eight shutouts.
Twin Valley’s Justin Hicks (16 goals, eight assists) collected a hat trick in the semifinals. Nick Nilsen (11 goals, six assists) and Skyler Boyd (six goals, two assists) are also key to TV’s attack. Goalie Kyle Murdock has a .66 goals-against average with seven shutouts.
•No. 9 Arlington (8-8-1) vs. No. 2 Proctor (13-2-1), 1 p.m. at Whitcomb H.S.: Arlington is not a typical nine seed. Nor is Proctor’s position at No. 2.
The Eagles, with a tough MVL schedule loaded with D-III teams and a couple D-I programs, is better than its 5-8-1 regular-season mark. That was revealed in the playoffs, as Arlington outscored opponents 11-1 in the first three rounds of the tournament, including a 4-0 shutout of No. 1 Craftsbury.
The Phantoms, meanwhile, are making their program’s 24th appearance in a title game (15-6-2 all-time record).
And then there is this: a 1-1 tie between Proctor and Arlington on Oct. 14.
Both teams battled for semifinal wins: Arlington used Colin Lawler’s goal in double-overtime to outlast West Rutland, while Eli Akin’s first-half tally was the game’s only strike in the victory over Sharon.
The teams are squaring off in the playoffs for the first time since the 2009 quarterfinals, a 2-0 Proctor triumph.