EAST MONTPELIER — A week ago, the St. Johnsbury girls lacrosse team was licking its wounds after losing three straight games before the start of Division II playoffs.
Flash forward seven days and the No. 6 Hilltoppers are heading to their first championship in 19 years.
Six goals by Lilly Leach led No. 6 St. Johnsbury to Tuesday’s 10-8 semifinal victory over No. 2 U-32, spoiling the Raiders’ bid for a repeat crown. U-32 ends the season at 11-4 and will miss out on a third straight trip to the final. St. Johnsbury (8-7) will face No. 1 Vergennes (16-0) in the championship at the University of Vermont. The date and time have not been announced.
“U-32 had a couple really strong players and I was proud of our defense for holding the line and never giving up,” St. Johnsbury coach Tom Forster said. “The difference today was we were able to use our stick work and we have good depth. Everybody on our team can pass and catch, so we can spread it out and just move the ball. It was a very close game and I felt like (U-32) had the momentum for awhile. And it was exciting that we were able to win it back at the very end.”
U-32 played in four one-goal games during the regular season and reinforced its reputation for having last-minute thrillers during the semis. The Raiders earned an 11-10 victory over the Hilltoppers early in the season, and the rematch was just as tight. St. Johnsbury goalie Grace Phelps and U-32 goalie Kathryn Jones finished with nine saves apiece. Both turned away a handful of free-position shots, denying their opponents at crucial times to prevent any big scoring bursts.
“We were just trying to get going all game,” U-32 coach Emilie Connor said “We had a few flurries and a little bit of momentum at times. But it was back and forth and there were a lot of lead changes at the start of the second half. It’s tough, but only one team is happy at the end of the year. And this year wasn’t our year.”
U-32’s top scorers were Cypress Levitt (three goals), Charlotte Harris (two goals), Ella Lyford (one goal, two assists), Brooke George (one goal) and Emily Ehret (one goal, one assist). Olivia Matteis tallied two goals for the Hilltoppers, who have never won a championship. Polly Currier (one goal, three assists) and Ella Ceppetelli (one goal, one assist) also had big days for the Northeast Kingdom squad.
“St. Johnsbury played a smart game,” Connor said. “And what it really comes down to in the end is they executed. And I felt like we didn’t today. On any given day, it’s whoever shows up to play. I thought we were pretty well-prepared, but the better team won today. They were coming off a pretty hard game against GMVS, and we haven’t been overly challenged much in the last few weeks when we’ve had a full team.”
The Hilltoppers scored three goals in the first six minutes to build a 3-0 lead against the Raiders. Leach opened the scoring on a free-position shot and Ceppetelli made it 2-0 after beating a double-team behind the goal. Matteis added another free-position goal before U-32’s Kaylee Thayer won a ground ball and sparked one of her team’s first counterattacks. After Thayer was fouled in transition, the Raiders used a quick restart and Lyford set up Harris to make it 3-1. Harris scored on another Lyford assist 2:39 later, closing the gap to 3-2.
U-32 defensive specialist Bella Hayes blocked a point-blank shot by St. Johnsbury’s Mairen Thierney with 12:40 left in the first half, keeping the Raiders in contention. A free-position goal by George made it 4-3 with 11:53 on the clock, and Ehret caused a crucial turnover behind her team’s goal a minute later.
A long Raiders possession resulted in a Levitt free-position goal from the left side with 8:03 left in the first half, tying the score at 4. Phelps followed with two saves on Levitt free-position shots in a span of 30 seconds.
“(Phelps) has always been really clever and really quick to find those open cutters,” Leach said.
The Hilltoppers pulled ahead 5-4 with 4:37 remaining when Leach weaved through two defenders and scored outside the left post. St. Johnsbury threatened to re-establish a two-goal lead, but Jones stopped two free-position shots during a 45-second stretch. At the end of the half, Ehret drew the St. J defense toward the left side and fired a weak-side pass to Levitt, who scored with two seconds left to make it 5-5.
“(Levitt) was definitely a threat and she was someone we wanted to shut down,” Leach said.
Phelps blocked two straight free-position shots at the start of the second half before stopping Levitt on two close-range scoring chances. Lyford’s free-position goal gave the Raiders their first lead of the game with 20:45 remaining, but Leach answered less than two minutes later.
With 13:23 remaining, Ehret cut in from the left side, sprinted across the goal mouth and dipped her shoulder to fire in a low-percentage goal for a 7-6 lead. It was all St. Johnsbury the rest of the way, with Leach absorbing heavy contact before scoring the game-tying goal with 10:18 left to play.
The game’s turning point arrived when Currier scored the go-ahead goal and set up Matteis a minute later, giving the Hilltoppers a 9-7 lead with 8:56 on the clock. The Raiders created a few chances to make it a one-goal game again, only to watch Phelps scoop up the ball at the last second. With 4:45 to play, Ehret caught a pass from Levitt and attempted to set up Lyford for a quick-release shot, but Phelps sprinted 5 yards off her goal line to intercept the ball.
“I was very pleased with Grace Phelps: She just didn’t give up,” Forster said. “And a couple times she came out of the goal and just grabbed the ball.”
Jenna Fillion won two ground balls in the final 2:28, allowing the Hilltoppers to play keep-away on offense. Leach made it 10-7 with 59 seconds left to play before Levitt capped the scoring 15 seconds later.
“It was a fight and it was a great match,” Leach said. “We just kept our heads in it and had great energy. I was trying to just hang onto the ball, find the open girls and be smart with it. And draw controls were definitely a big advantage in the end.”
Even though the Raiders defense worked overtime to neutralize Leach all game, it was an uphill battle.
“The face-guard is always something I like to have as a weapon, and I didn’t really hone that in this year,” Connor said. “We had one girl who was trying it, and we threw it in a little bit. But (Leach) did a great job getting away from it. And they did mark Cypress really well, but we just didn’t have the ball enough on offense. We weren’t able to keep possession and we didn’t have settled attack. I felt like the whole game we were just frantic, and we had way too many turnovers.”
Levitt won three draw controls and Ehret won two for the Raiders. But the Hilltoppers held a 13-7 overall advantage on draw controls, and smart passing gave the visitors a significant edge in time of possession. Harris, Hayes, Jones and Jozie Bolduc will graduate for the Raiders, who only played two games on their home field this year due to late snow and drainage issues.
“We had one practice on this field all season and it’s been such a weird year,” Connor said. “You could make a million excuses — the bottom line is that we’ll learn from this game going forward. I think this year, in the end, was a rebuilding year. It’s not an excuse: I think we had the team that could have gone all the way, and we could have taken it. But it just wasn’t our day today. Between not being able to win the draw and not being able to win a ground ball, we crumpled under pressure. And they excelled under pressure. They also played a stall pretty much the entire game. It seemed like part of their game plan was to spread it out wide and stall. And they had a really good game plan to win. Our defense gets worn out playing against a stall offense the whole game. St. Johnsbury played a very smart game and I hope they do well in the championship.”