EAST MONTPELIER — U-32 football started out as a rags-to-riches program. The Raiders struggled to win a single game in the mid-1990s before rattling off 36 straight victories from 2000-2004 under coach Mike Law.
Current coach Brian Divelbliss has yet to claim a title since taking over in 2010, but he’s helped sustain a sturdy program that’s eyeing its seventh straight playoff appearance this fall. His 2015 team punched a ticket to the Division III championship, and the following year the Raiders made it to the D-III semis. Last year, the Raiders competed in D-II and were eliminated with a 20-18 quarterfinal loss at Bellows Falls.
The Raiders’ first scrimmages are set for Aug. 24 and the competition will be fierce. Division I Essex will host the four-team jamboree, with D-I BFA-St. Albans and Burlington-South Burlington joining the mix. U-32 will kick off the season Aug. 30 at North Country before facing Mill River at Norwich University on Sept. 7. Road trips to Brattleboro, Bellows Falls and Mount Abraham are also on tap, while home games in East Montpelier will be played against Milton, Lyndon and Spaulding.
Burr and Burton returns as the defending D-II champ after hammering Fair Haven, 63-14, in last year’s title game. The D-II field also features Brattleboro, Fair Haven, Lyndon, Milton, Mount Abraham, Mount Anthony, North Country and Spaulding.
Following four straight days of double workouts to start preseason, the Raiders took it relatively easy with a single session Friday. The light rain offered a welcome break from the heat, and Divelbliss’ socks were still wet two hours after practice when he took the time to answer a few questions:
TA: How would you describe the continuity of the program? A lot of schools are up-and-down, but it seems like you guys have been pretty solid.
Divelbliss: “Yeah, I think we remain consistent. I’ve been pretty lucky having a consistent staff. And our cooperative programs and membership programs have worked out fantastic for us. We’ve gotten some players who maybe wouldn’t have the opportunity to play football, and we’ve given them a chance to play football. It’s not that the numbers from them have been huge, but the guys who have been interested in playing have been given an opportunity to play. And they commit fully to it. We’re fortunate enough to join with some neighboring schools, and we get guys that are really interested in playing football. And some guys that have never played before come out and they’re pretty decent athletes.”
TA: This year are there any players from Twinfield or Harwood or some other schools?
Divelbliss: “Well we always have some Harwood players — we might be going on around 12 years with Harwood. We had both Greene brothers — Matt was our quarterback in the championship game, And his brother Danny was playing with us the same time, and Danny just graduated two years ago. At one time we had up to 10-12 players from Harwood, but we’re consistently around 6-8. We’ve been with Montpelier for probably three years, and our starting quarterback (Nathan LaRosa) and our starting center (Isaak Donahue) are from Montpelier.”
TA: What have the early impressions been so far? I’m guessing there’s a handful of freshmen on the team.
Divelbliss: We don’t have a ton of freshmen coming out, but we never traditionally do. My best year, when we went to the state championship game, is when all these guys came out as sophomores. We try to get a couple JV games in, but we don’t have a ton guys on JV. And we’ll get some sophomores or juniors that come out who maybe played in middle school or haven’t played before.”
TA: U-32 middle school only plays flag football. So is there a little bit of a learning curve or a transition going from flag to tackle?
Divelbliss: “No, I don’t think so because in practice we still teach the fundamentals of tackling. Our middle school coaches still go through that protocol with the kids, it’s just not implemented in games. But that’s not really been an issue for us. I think it’s important if we can keep the schemes the same, if we can get our middle school coaches to match our high school’s offensive and defensive schemes, so the kids learn the terminology. That’s where many programs probably see a disconnect. If they’re not matching their middle school and high school with consistent terminology, that’s where the big learning curve comes in.”
TA: And how about overall numbers for the roster? Is it still a work in progress, or do you have a decent sense of how many kids will be on the team?
Divelbliss: We’ll have probably just under 40 — we’ve been consistently there. We’ll probably be around 35 and that’s pretty decent. I would obviously like to have more just to have a better sense of our JV. But what gets us sometimes — it’s not a negative, it’s a positive — is we’ve had a couple seniors from Montpelier and from U-32 come out for football this year who have never played football. So I can’t play them in JV games because they’re seniors, and sometimes they’re still trying to figure out how the equipment goes on. But it’s nice to have them out because they’re decent athletes and they’re willing to learn and work hard. So we’ll find a spot for them. It’s just that they might not be able to contribute the way a senior could if he was there from middle school all the way through. That’s going to be the difference, and I’ve talked to those guys about that. I said just to understand that your role on this team is not going to be maybe what your role is on your basketball team or your track team, because you’ve never played football. You’ve played these other sports your whole life. This is like picking up anything that’s brand new: The more you practice, the better you’re going to get. So you really have to put in a lot more time than maybe the guy who’s played [seven or eight] years.”
TA: And how about the first week of preseason? I know you were doing two-a-days, so was it a lot of fitness testing or were you doing more tactical stuff too?
Divelbliss: “We’re definitely more tactical. The fitness piece comes with our training and our drills. Our drills are pretty high-speed, up-tempo. We do some conditioning at the end, but I tell the guys that conditioning at this point is more of a mental exercise than physical. When we’re going to run these sprints or run these different conditioning tests at the end of practice, I said it’s more for us and you to evaluate and reflect on where your conditioning is at. We can only have so many two-a-days — most of the practices we have one time a day. So I said, ‘You have 12 more hours in the day that you can take it upon yourself to go out and do something positive for your body. You can go work out, you can go for a run.’ And there are guys on our team, I’m really happy to say, that are doing that. When we’re done, they’re going out and taking it upon themselves to get a little extra conditioning.”
TA: You guys are at North Country for the first game of the season and then you’re at Brattleboro on Sept. 13. I know Brattleboro is a team you haven’t played much in the past, so is there more suspense or anticipation looking forward to some of these games.
Divelbliss: “I don’t think we’ve ever played Brattleboro, and I don’t think Mike (Law) had ever played them. We’re just excited to play football, so we don’t get really up or down. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. My philosophy has always been that this is our most important game of the week — we don’t look ahead, don’t look behind. We have a great week, let’s move on. We have a bad week, let’s move on. Who’s our next opponent? Let’s prepare for them scout-wise. And I’ve always said that we need to focus more on ourselves than the other team. We’ll scout and see what the other team is doing to prepare. But what are our deficiencies, what do we need to work on? If it’s our timing, our coverage, if we need to improve our technique — things like that. So we watch our film as much — if not more — than scout film to see what we’re lacking in.”
TA: And you definitely have some familiar opponents too, like Mount Abe and Milton.
Divelbliss: “We do. It’s been awhile since we’ve played Lyndon and it will be nice to play them again. I always like playing Lyndon because I think we have good competition, but we haven’t played them in a couple years. And we’ll have Spaulding again, which is great for the area. And then we’ll have Bellows Falls again, which has always been a battle — especially last year. They beat us at our place at the end of the game, and then we had to travel the very next week and play them down at their place in a playoff game.”
TA: You play Spaulding the last game of the regular season, so there could be some big playoff implications there.
Divelbliss: “Without a doubt. When it get downs there, in any sport, whoever is going to be healthiest at the end is going to have the best chance. ... I think every team in the area is one or two kids away from playing some inexperienced guys that aren’t going to be as prepared as obviously your starters.”
TA: Are there a handful of guys you’re counting on to lead the way as players?
Divelbliss: “There are definitely guys who do that on their own. One thing I’ve never done is have captains on our program. So I don’t announce captains and we don’t have designated leadership spots. If I see a freshman and if I need something taken care of, I’ll ask him as much as I’ll ask an upperclassman. But there are some guys who just go out of their way and they motivate and they take care of things without me asking. And for our quarterback, I put that on his back and that’s not even an option. If you’re going to be the quarterback, it’s just assumed that you’re going to be responsible for everything — on and off the field. And it’s assumed that you’re going to be able to handle that role. I wouldn’t make a kid a quarterback unless he could handle that role, regardless of his skill set.”