STOWE — Otter Valley’s Alec Stevens just might be the Cadillac of Vermont high school lacrosse goalies. Stowe coach Neil Handwerger is just happy Stevens and the Otters got out of the Raiders’ garage with Stowe’s state championship dreams still intact after Saturday’s 3-2 victory.
“He was absolutely incredible. You don’t want to cheer for the other guy, but...”
Handwerger has a darn good goalie himself. Stowe senior goalie Nate Rice had his own collection of difficult saves in the low scoring affair that showcased the goalies and the defenses.
Rice could appreciate Stevens from a goalie’s perspective.
“Obviously, he’s a good goalie. It was tough to see so many of our shots being stopped,” Rice said.
The Otters had a 1-0 halftime lead. The goal came from Hayden Gallo, a prolific scorer all season, 36 seconds before the half.
Gallo nearly padded the lead with a shot ticketed for the upper corner in the early minutes of the second quarter but Rice denied him with an outstanding save.
“Definitely in the first half, there were some hard shots to save and they kept coming,” Rice said.
The Raiders also kept knocking. An assortment of hard, low shots tested Stevens time and again. He was always able to respond, sometimes going to one knee to impede a shot that exploded at his feet. He stopped them whether they were from point blank range or lasers from the perimeter.
“He is the heart and soul of our team,” OV coach Jesse Milliman said of his goalie.
Just for a moment, 26 seconds into the second half, Stevens appeared nearly human. Cam Anderson unleashed a hard shot for the Raiders. Stevens anticipated he was going to shoot low and went down for it, only to have Anderson put one high into the net for the tying goal.
Jace Boerger rang up the goal that put the Raiders ahead with 4:06 remaining in the third quarter. It was an unassisted goal that the opportunistic Boerger converted when the ball bounced up from the ground.
The Raiders took that 2-1 lead into the fourth quarter and extended it on another goal by Boerger with nine minutes remaining in the game.
Milliman knew the situation was getting dire with a two-goal deficit and time ticking down.
“Pressure the ball,” he yelled to his players, realizing that long possessions by Stowe were the death knell for his team.
Things got interesting when the Otters made it 3-2 with 4:06 to play and what really worked the large fan contingent from Otter Valley into the frenzy was that the goal was scored by Stevens. His coast-to-coast foray produced a score by a senior who was refusing to let the dream die. It was his first varsity goal.
“Hard to the ball. Hard to the ball,” Milliman yelled, but the equalizer would not come and the the Raiders were off to the semifinals.
Handwerger loved the effort by Rice and his defense.
“We played great defense as a unit, but particularly Flynn Kearney,” Handwerger said.
Milliman and his players had studied plenty of film on Stowe. “We were ready,” the OV coach said.
He felt like that plan was materializing on the field and told the players during a timeout with the 1-0 lead that the game plan was playing out as exactly as he had hoped.
“We were doing just what we wanted to do, playing defense and communicating,” Milliman said.
Handwerger and his staff has built a well respected program and the Raiders won a state crown as recently as 2017.
Both teams played zone and deployed the alignment very effectively. They were mirror images in many respects so it is no wonder both coaches expressed admiration for the other and their team.
Handwerger expressed his desire to play the Otters during the regular season. They had not met before.
“We should play. We play a similar game. I was impressed,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for their coach.”
The Otters pressed the attack in the early minutes of the game. Ethan Sulik-Doty unleashed the first really testing shot of the game and followed it up with another strong scoring bid.
Then Gallo scored, heightening the energy on the OV sideline which was already high from the opening draw.
Milliman expressed his appreciation for Handwerger and the way his kids played. It is the type of product he wants to put on the field in Brandon and off this season which saw the Otters earn the No. 5 seed, it appears they are just about there.
Next year he must start over in the goal after a great run with Stevens.
He had a promising freshman this year in Denny O’Brien who is the heir apparent.
“Alec has been working with Denny and he has been getting shot at in practice,” Milliman said.
It is a program with a future.
But the No. 4 Raiders don’t have to wait that long for their future. It is now and they have a hungry look.