This time of year some things in Central Vermont are as predictable as mud season.
But if basketball fans are trying to size up Saturday’s Division III championship, they may as well flip a coin.
Top-seeded Williamstown (18-4) and No. 3 Thetford (16-5) will tip off at 7:30 p.m. at the Barre Aud, with the Blue Devils making their eighth straight trip to the final. Selecting a favorite is tricky after two wildly different results in the regular season.
The Panthers put the hurt on Williamstown during a 69-38 romp on Jan. 4, stunning a Blue Devils program that is not accustomed to losing — even by small margins. Williamstown avenged the loss on Jan. 30 with a 59-48 victory at Thetford, marking a 42-point swing from the initial outcome.
“We split with Thetford — and I think we played one of our worst games and then they played one of their worst games,” Blue Devils coach Jack Carrier said. “So it’s hard to tell how we’re going to match up realistically. But if we can keep a couple of their shooters down and attack the middle, I think we’ll be OK.”
Both teams have six seniors, and most are multi-sport athletes. Williamstown seniors Tyler Orton, Colby Gingras, Garrett Metcalf and Ryan O’Neil join junior Jacob Tassie in the starting rotation.
Former Chelsea standout Jake Colby starts for Thetford along with Eli Dunnet, Alex Emerson, Carter Blain and Owen Deffner. Last fall Colby was the Panthers’ star soccer goalie, while Deffner opted to give up soccer to run cross country. After winning an individual title and a team title, Deffner captured two indoor track championships last month. Now he’s poised to add a basketball title to his trophy case.
“We wanted to play (Williamstown),” Deffner said. “We’re really excited to play the best team in the state for the state championship. This is the situation we wanted to be in.”
The Panthers will enjoy a size advantage against the Blue Devils, who depend on O’Neil (6-foot-5) for a lot of rebounding duties. Orton and Gingras are 5-9 guards who stay close to the perimeter but aren’t afraid to crash the boards. Metcalf and Tassie have bulked up in the past year and both play bigger than their 5-11 frames. Teammates Cole Banks (6 feet) and Ryker Townsend (6-foot-1) are top rebounding options from off the bench.
“We box out well with our 3-2 zone and we’re physical,” Orton said.
Colby and Emerson (6 feet) are the shortest starters for Thetford. Dunnet (6-foot-1), Blain (6-foot-2) and Deffner (6-foot-4) provide a combination of length and athleticism, making Thetford tough to beat on the boards and in transition. The Panthers held a massive rebounding advantage during their first game against Williamstown, resulting in a 26-12 first-quarter lead and a 43-16 halftime advantage.
“Fortunately we were able to get a lot of offensive boards,” Thetford coach Jason Gray said. “And we kept boxing them out, rebounding on both ends, switching well defensively and playing hard-nosed man-to-man defense.”
Gray said defense was the key to that first game, but it didn’t hurt to have four Panthers in double-figures. Dunnet (23 points), Emerson (12 points), Blain (11 points) and Deffner (10 points) led the way, while Orton (17 points) paced Williamstown.
“We knew we had to work inside and our guards really helped Owen and myself out immensely,” Dunnet said after the victory. “We put the work in down low and they kept feeding us. I like to work inside and in the mid-range because I feel like I’m strongest there and can contribute my best.”
Williamstown bounced back from the loss and rattled off seven straight victories. Thetford’s seven-game winning streak came to a screeching halt when a 24-point effort by Tassie helped Williamstown claim payback. Gingras added 12 points in the rematch, while Colby (24 points) led Thetford. The Blue Devils trailed 13-8 after the first quarter but clawed back to grab a 27-23 halftime lead. Williamstown extended its lead to 38-29 in the third quarter and wound up holding Thetford to its third-lowest scoring total of the season.
The Panthers dropped two games since then, falling to Montpelier and Lamoille. But they also trounced D-I Lyndon and edged D-II U-32 at the end of the regular season. Thetford kicked off the playoffs with a 66-51 quarterfinal victory against No. 6 BFA-Fairfax, led by Colby (21 points) and Blain (20 points). On Thursday Dunnet (17 points) and Deffner (16 points) took control during a 49-41 semifinal win over No. 2 Hazen. The Thetford girls won the D-III title last week, setting the stage for a potential sweep that would follow Windsor’s boys and girls championships from last year.
The Blue Devils will be seeking their ninth crown and their seventh this decade. Carrier was a player on Williamstown’s 1986 title team, and he coached the Blue Devils during championship seasons in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017.
Williamstown was untested in the quarterfinals, rolling to a 62-27 victory over No. 8 Green Mountain. Orton (12 points) set the tone, with Gingras, Tassie and O’Neil adding 11 points apiece. Orton (13 points) and O’Neil (10 points) propelled their team to a 48-36 semifinal victory over Peoples. Orton and Tassie went a combined 13 of 13 from the foul line and Carrier earned his 200th career victory.
“It’s great to get the 200th win, but we’re on to the championship – which is the most important thing,” Carrier said. “If I’m coaching next year, I get that 200th win next year. But I wanted these guys to move on.”
Williamstown Championship Glance
2018 D-III runner-up
Windsor 71-59 loss
2017 D-III champion
Hazen 66-54 win
2016 D-III runner-up
Hazen 66-43 loss
2015 D-III champion
Rivendell 76-65 win
2014 D-III champion
Randolph 88-69 win
2013 D-III champion
Thetford 63-39 win
2012 D-III champion
Rivendell 66-42 win
2010 D-IV champion