RUTLAND – The glimmer of hope was there for two-time defending champion Middlebury when quarterback Andrew Gleason hit Chase Messner in stride on a slant route that soon blossomed into a 72-yard touchdown strike.
The Tigers’ first points, coming midway through the third quarter, staunched the bleeding and pumped new energy into the Division I championship game against Rutland — briefly.
More red was on the way.
“It felt great, but then they got the ball right back and drove down and scored again,” Middlebury coach Dennis Smith said.
“If we could’ve stopped them, who knows?” he said. “But that didn’t happen.”
One final Rutland touchdown — another exercise in big plays and balance — saw to that, cementing what had been clear for some time: The top-seeded Raiders would indeed be the team to end the No. 2 Tigers’ run, securing the D-I high school football title with a 35-7 victory on Saturday night.
The crown is Rutland’s first since 2006 and eighth under coach Mike Norman.
“A lot of things went our way and our kids made their own opportunities,” said Norman. “I’ve been at this a long time here and when you get kids that are focused on the task at hand and put away all the stuff on the sides, they can do some amazing things.
“It’s a great thing for them, it’s a great thing for our school, but it’s a great thing for our community tonight, for sure.”
In doing so, the Raiders (10-1) dashed Middlebury’s chance for a third straight title and snapped its 32-game winning streak.
“This will sting, and that’s good,” Smith said. “It’s OK. If it doesn’t sting, it really didn’t mean anything. We all like to win but all good things come to an end.”
And for the first time in three years, the Tigers (10-1) had met their match.
Quarterback Andy Kenosh deftly pulled the strings for a Rutland offense that was on the accelerator from the start, racing to a 21-0 halftime lead.
Kenosh completed his first six passes of the game and then his first eight attempts of the second half en route to finishing 16-of-21 for 265 yards and three scores. He added 73 yards on 12 carries as half of the Raiders’ potent 1-2 read-option duo with senior running back Caleb White (26 carries, 99 yards, two TDs) that kept the Tigers from keying too closely on the passing game.
“I’m just speechless,” Kenosh said. “It feels awesome to bring this trophy to our fans who’ve supported us, our families who have given us all this support, and our coaches who have believed in us. It feels great to bring this home.”
Kenosh and company got to work early, striking on their first drive with a 35-yard TD pass over the top of the defense to Jimmy Mee barely three minutes into the game.
A Kenosh interception on the Tigers’ ensuing drive — their first foray into Rutland territory — set up another bomb four plays later, a 40-yard heave to the right corner of the end zone hauled in by Cam Slade (seven catches, 149 yards) over two defenders.
The Raiders’ final score of the first half, a 5-yard pass to Mee that capped a 12-play, 66-yard drive, was adequate punctuation for their opening statement.
“You can only do so much. I can’t make our guys any faster, any bigger, any stronger, any taller,” Smith said. “Everybody’s got to play an assignment and do what they’re supposed to do and we did that defensively against the run pretty well. But against the pass, (Kenosh) was the X-factor.”
The Rutland lead ballooned to 28-0 with 4:32 to play in the third quarter when White stretched to reach the right pylon on a 3-yard scoring plunge.
White’s second touchdown, the rebuttal to the Tigers’ only score, put the result on ice with 11 minutes left in regulation — a reality almost unthinkable before the final.
“We always talk about win every play, win every down, but as long as we win by one it may not be pretty but it’s effective,” Norman said. “But to win the way that we did was not expected at all, for sure.”
Fullback Cortland Fischer led the Tigers with 70 yards on 11 carries, while Gleason and Ali Abdul-Sater added 19 yards apiece. Messner had the one catch for 72 yards.
“We’d get ourselves in trouble. It could be a third-and-3, but all of a sudden we get a penalty and it’s second-and-12 and that’s not where we’re going to be able to operate,” Smith said.
After watching from the Alumni Stadium hillside as Middlebury celebrated championships on Rutland’s home turf the last two seasons, the swan song was especially sweet for the Raiders’ 16 seniors.
On top. At home. Without doubt.
“I don’t think you could’ve written it up any better,” Norman said.