The field hockey team won their first title on Saturday in Burlington.
Article courtesy of the Paul Hayes/Caledonian-Record.
Reign Dance: Hilltoppers pour it on after halftime, celebrate first field hockey title
BURLINGTON — The conditions were horrific.
The outcome was historic.
Fourth-seeded St. Johnsbury Academy braved steady rain, gusting winds and 40-degree temperatures and beat No. 2 Stowe 2-0 in the Division III championship at UVM's Moulton Winder Field on Saturday.
It was the Hilltoppers' first state title in their first finals appearance.
"We've been working for this for so long, it just means everything," said St. J senior co-captain Taryn Tremblay. "We're making history and that's an amazing feeling."
The Hilltoppers (13-3-1) were dominant in their championship debut, outshooting Stowe 11-1 and holding a 12-2 edge in penalty corners.
Morgan Belknap and Alexis Duranleau each scored second-half goals as St. J ended its season on an 11-game unbeaten streak [going 10-0-1 since Sept. 25].
"The girls played lights out today," said St. J head coach Tara Bailey.
The championship win erased the memory of last season, when St. Johnsbury was ranked second at the midpoint, but then forfeited six wins for having an ineligible player, leading to a first-round playoff exit.
The team's 10 returning players, along with key newcomers Duranleau (a transfer from Hartford) and Lilly Laufenberg (a dorm student from Germany), were motivated to restore the program's good name — and take it to new heights.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team," Bailey said. "After everything we've been through in the past couple of years, we came back and showed D-III who we are."
Added Tremblay, "Last year our team was really strong, but we had a few complications. This year we were really determined and we wanted it really badly. It's been the goal for a while."
St. J took control early and was as unrelenting as the weather.
After a scoreless first half the Hilltoppers took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Belknap with 22 minutes to play. It came on the Academy's eighth penalty corner of the contest.
Duranleau had the assist, taking advantage of a Stowe defense focused on St. J's top scorers Laufenberg (16 goals, 14 assists) and Michaela Roy (11 goals, 2 assists).
"I'm not used to getting the ball on corners. Usually either [Laufenberg or Roy] gets the ball and it goes in," said Duranleau. "But then it came to me and I'm like, 'Oh my God, what do I do?' So I just hit it across and I was like 'This better work.'"
It worked. Positioned at the far post, Belknap batted the ball out of the air and over the head of Stowe goalkeeper Andrea Jackman. It was Belknap's eighth goal and Duranleau's second assist this season.
It proved to be the championship-winning play for the Hilltoppers.
"I freaked out," Bailey said. "I was so excited. To get that lead that we'd been struggling to get the whole game, it was awesome."
"We all just started jumping and screaming," Duranleau said.
Duranleau added an insurance goal with seven minutes to go, again on a penalty corner, scoring on a feed from Laufenberg to make it 2-0.
Breanna Fearon and the Academy defense did the rest. They held Stowe to no shots in the second half as St. J posted its eighth shutout win, and seventh in its last 11 games. St. J goaltender Melanie Coons had one save.
"It was absolutely amazing," Bailey said. "We possessed the ball, we made good passes, we had excellent defensive stops, [Fearon] stopped them every time, we had a lot of opportunities to score and we made it happen twice."
Stowe (12-4-1) lost in the finals for the fourth time in five years. The 16-time D-III titlists last won it all in 2013.
It was a remarkable ending for St. Johnsbury, which started the season 3-3, then pulled together to go unbeaten over the final five weeks.
The secret to St. J's transformation from a .500 team to state champs? Teamwork and togetherness.
"We bonded as a team," Tremblay said. "Our communication was awesome, we were really clicking on the field. We were just a family and that's what got us here after those six games."
She credits Bailey for making that happen, whether it was developing new drills for practice or organizing team dinners, saying, "She's amazing, I love her, she's the best coach I've ever had. She just cares about this sport so much, she's so passionate, and she wants us to succeed."
Bailey noted another important ingredient in her team's evolution into champions: Consistency.
"This season was a little bit up and down for us. We had games where we were on and off. And we just finally figured things out and I don't think we had those peaks and valleys today, we were just so consistent," Bailey said.
Following the championship win, with the rain and wind getting worse, St. J players celebrated with overwhelming joy, tears mixing with the rain. It was especially gratifying for the team's six seniors Natalie Cartwright, Morgan Stanton, Madison Duranleau, Fearon, Roy and Tremblay.
"We've been working for this for four years, I can't describe how amazing it feels," Tremblay said. "It brings happiness to my heart and it lights me up inside, because we've been working so hard, and we deserve this."