MONTPELIER — The Capital City will host the nation’s first high school Ultimate state championships on Thursday.
The Montpelier girls and boys are the No. 1 seeds, and they’ll both put perfect records on the line.
The MHS boys (13-0) will face No. 6 Burlington (10-3) at 5 p.m. prior to the 7 p.m. girls title game between Montpelier (10-0) and No. 3 CVU (7-3). The Solons have not captured a team title in any varsity sport since 2015, but now they’ll have two chances to finish the job.
While both home teams will be favorites, the MHS girls have enjoyed a smoother ride this season, outscoring Vermont teams 140-21. Montpelier earned a bye in the quarterfinals before eliminating Lyndon with a 15-1 semifinal victory. CVU ousted St. Johnsbury and Burlington to reach the title game.
Varsity Ultimate is new to Vermont and the country, but Montpelier’s teams are no strangers to success. The Solons captured a handful of titles while the sport was at the club level, and during the last two seasons, coach Nolan Benoit’s team claimed top honors when Ultimate was an exhibition sport.
“Having won the state championship the past two years, we feel like there’s a bit of a target on our back,” Benoit said. “And a team like CVU is going into this game with nothing to lose. No matter where CVU is at, they’re going to be excited and ready to play hard. Some of our girls are a little nervous, but we have practiced a lot of techniques to be able to control nerves and play our game. And I think that’s what’s going to carry us through in the championship.”
The MHS girls beat CVU 15-3 early in the season and held on for a 9-6 victory in a rematch two weeks ago.
“The second time we played CVU it was a round robin with South Burlington and the time cap was a little bit shorter,” Montpelier coach Nolan Benoit said. “We played for 75 minutes and usually it’s 90. And that’s the closest game we’ve had all season. We tend to thrive by having a really efficient offense, and in that game it was hard to score with the amount of wind and rain and how cold it was. We had way more turnovers than we normally do.”
One big advantage for the Redhawks is that Montpelier will be missing top scorer Eliana Moorhead due to a knee injury. Moorhead averaged three points and one assist per game. Teammate Grace Valentine will attempt to fill the void after averaging five assists and one point per game. Nadia Scoppettone and Mae Browning have both recorded an average of four assists and two points each game, while Mikayla Luke-Currier averages two assists and two points per game.
“Grace makes really good decisions and she can put the disc exactly where it needs to be, no matter who the receiver is,” Benoit said. “And Mae is our green-light huck thrower. Nobody really has a ton of points per game, and that speaks a lot to the depth of our team. Anyone could be the one to score the next point. Against CVU, we’re going to be looking to slow it down a little — especially on offense. We can play such clean, efficient offense. And that’s what we’re going to look to do (Thursday). CVU is going to give us the opportunities to score — we just have to take advantage of it.”
The Solons have executed person defense most of the season while mixing in zone at times. Benoit expects that the Redhawks will rely on zone defense 50% of the time, and CVU is deep with a 20-person roster.
“We’re a really calculated team on offense, and CVU is going to try to disrupt our system,” Benoit said. “They play good handler defense, so we will have to improvise a little more. And hopefully we’ll be able to get our cutters downfield a little more. On offense, their style is to get the disc moving with big throws in transition. And regardless of whether it’s a completion or not, they’re happy because they have a lot of really athletic players who can play really good defense. But I think we’re a more technically skilled team. Our throws and catches are just really solid — and we saw that against Lyndon. They played zone and we had the fewest turnovers that we’ve had all season in a game.”
The MHS boys swept Burlington in the regular season, prevailing 15-7 and 15-8. The Solons’ closest challenges against in-state competition were a pair of 15-9 wins. Coach Anne Watson’s team blazed a path to the final with a 15-2 win over Sharon, a 15-6 victory over South Burlington and a 15-7 win over Essex. Burlington punched its ticket to the final by eliminating VT Commons, Colchester and Burr and Burton.
“We’ve been anticipating that Burlington would be good and we’re conscious that anything can happen,” Watson said. “We are going to be ready to play and we don’t want to take anything for granted after beating them twice in the regular season. They are a team that likes to huck it deep. So if we can either get to that space first, or if their throws are not as accurate, that could be a good advantage for us. It’s looking like the championship game will be fairly windy. And we have really good technical skills with catching and throwing, and we tend to outplay other teams athletically. If it’s really rainy or windy, that brings out errors for teams that don’t have as many technical skills.”
Even though the MHS boys and girls are technically undefeated, they both suffered losses against nationally-ranked opponents during elite tournaments in Massachusetts. The Solons took their lumps during the Pioneer Valley Invitational and the Amherst Invitational, but the lessons learned could be a key edge Thursday.
“One of the reasons we go to out-of-state tournaments is that it’s really healthy for us to be in a situation where we know we’ll lose some games,” Watson said. “It’s good for character. And it’s good for taking a hard look at our own deficiencies and where we could improve. It’s tough to improve from games that are blowouts.”
The plus-minus ratings in Ultimate are similar to hockey, and a trio of Solons have set the tone all season. Hayden Ellms (plus-92), Kaleth Torrens-Martin (plus-67) and Anders Shenholm (plus-46) lead the way, while Max Hughes has excelled defensively. Ellms (67 assists) and Shenholm (49 assists) are the top handlers, with Ellms completing 359 passes and Shenholm recording 321 completions. The team’s passing leaders also include Colin Desch (169 completions), Torrens-Martin (168 completions), Hughes (120 completions), Remi Savard (84 completions) and Gavin Corbett-Valade (76 completions).
“Kaleth tends to not handle — but he can,” Watson said. “And Hayden and Anders are both really flexible. We have players constantly cutting, so there are continual options for the next receiver, and there is immediately an easy next choice. Having depth of handlers comes in really handy. If cutters can continue to throw it upfield, we can feel pretty good about it.”
Seven Solons joined the century club this season by making at least 100 receptions. Ellms (326 catches) and Shenholm (224 catches) lead the way and Torrens-Martin (180 catches) is not far behind. Hughes (152 catches), Desch (125 catches), Corbett-Valade (121 catches) and Savard (110 catches) are also reliable targets, along with Sarvesh Sharma (62 catches) and Ian Keene (52 catches).
“Burlington is probably worried about specific handlers that we have,” Watson said. “But the thing is we have a lot of depth to our team and many people can handle. I have a lot of faith in our team to make smart decisions. A lot of these guys have been playing together since middle school and they know each other’s styles: How they like to cut, what type of throws they have. We’re looking to play our normal patient game. And in order to win you have to make one less mistake than the other team. So we’ll be very patient and we’ll be celebrating all the breaks that we can get.”