Rivals Become Teammates at Vt. All-Star Game

Middlebury, Vt. — After a hard-hitting nail-biter in last weekend’s Vermont Division III state championship game at Rutland High School, several members of the Woodstock and Mill River football teams became teammates literally overnight.

Less than 24 hours following the Wasps’ 20-19 overtime win, four Woodstock players and five Minutemen were back at Rutland High for the first of five South practices to prepare for Saturday’s North-South All-Star game at Middlebury College.

Even as Mill River coaches and administrators first protested, then appealed the denial to overturn a key overtime play, the Minutemen and Wasps players didn’t let the contention interfere with their relationships on the field.

The morning after the Nov. 9 title game, the Minutemen staff protested a call that put Woodstock running back Tom Baumann down at the 1-yard line in overtime, setting up Oliver Kaija’s touchdown and subsequent game-winning PAT by Nikolai Davis. Mill River contested that Baumann had fumbled through the end zone, which would have awarded the Minutemen possession and ended the game, since they had scored on the first possession of the OT and led 19-13 at the time.

After the original protest was denied, Mill River appealed and the decision was upheld following a 25-minute hearing with a five-person protest committee. The VPA announced the final decision Thursday.

All the while, Woodstock and Mill River players on the South roster remained friendly. There weren’t any hard feelings for Mill River assistant coach Tucker Peterson, either, even as he awaited the protest and appeals decisions while serving as an assistant to Fair Haven’s Brian Grady on the South coaching staff.

“It had nothing to do with Woodstock or their players,” Peterson said following the South’s 17-6 win Saturday at Youngman Field. “It was a call that we thought was a mistake, thought should be looked at and overturned, but for the players it was all about the (North-South) game.”

Kaija said he knew about the protest not long after the game was over.

“That same night, there were blogs out there about it, old guys on computers trying to make a big deal of it,” Kaija said.

Minutemen lineman Gage Stearns said any bitter feelings about the outcome were immediately set aside when it came time to focus on the all-star game.

“Football is family,” Stearns said. “Once we’re on the same team, we’re brothers representing Vermont football and it’s all about the sport. The referee made a mistake in our minds, but it doesn’t affect the kind of people that the Woodstock kids are.”

Kaija laments that the controversy received so much attention.

“One thing that gets lost in all of the talk about the appeal is that it was really an awesome game,” the fullback said. “That was the most physical, hard-fought game of my life and both teams did such a great job that day.”

Grady said he didn’t hear a peep about the issue all week.

“Not one player mentioned it, once,” he said. “I think they turned the page and moved on pretty quick. They became teammates and they really wanted to win this game together.”

Players from both teams contributed to the South’s win, which gave it a 7-6 advantage in a series that began at the turn of the century. Mill River quarterback Mark Goyette threw a touchdown pass to Minutemen tight end Tyler Pitts, Woodstock’s Zack Cole had an interception and several passes defensed and his twin brother, Sam Cole, had a fumble recovery for another of the North’s six turnovers.

Middlebury’s Sam Smith had two interceptions and Hartford’s Gregg Shinn had one in a defense-oriented game that featured 18 combined punts, 11 by the South. It was the second-lowest scoring North-South game in its historday, and had a much different feel than recent shootouts. The series averaged 85 combined points per game from 2009-12, culminating with the South’s 39-36 thriller a year ago at Castleton State College.

“When we put the rosters together, I let the assistant coaches build it around defense,” Grady said.

“We had a lot of Hartford and Woodstock guys, a lot of guys who know how to play defense. You have to play good base defense in this game, because you’re not allowed to blitz.”

After a scoreless first quarter, the South managed 10 points in the second thanks to a number of long passing plays. Goyette hit Sean Shepardson for 39 yards, then found the Poultney receiver again for 15 to set up his 8-yard pass to a wide open Pitts to make it 7-0 following Middlebury kicker Josh Stearns’ extra point.

The North went three-and-out on its next drive and the South responded again with the deep ball, this time a 45-yard connection from Rutland QB Nick Boles to Raiders’ teammate Joe Couture to the 12-yard line. The South settled for a 25-yard field goal by Stearns to make it 10-0 at halftime.

In the third quarter, the North went for it on fourth-and-1 at its own 41 and QB Josh Shufelt was stuffed, giving the South a short field. Boles found Wyatt Socinski for 14 yards to help set up a 20-yard scoring pass to Couture and a 17-0 South lead.

The North got on the board early in the fourth, tallying four first downs during a 54-yard drive ending in Shufelt’s 3-yard keeper. The 2-point conversion failed.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.