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Special Teams Lift Wasps Football to Title Game

Woodstock defender Travis Gault (65) forces an incomplete pass against Mount Abraham quarterback Alexander Coy on Saturday. Woodstock faces BFA-Fairfax for the Vermont Division III title on Saturday.
Valley News — Ryan Dorgan

Woodstock defender Travis Gault (65) forces an incomplete pass against Mount Abraham quarterback Alexander Coy on Saturday. Woodstock faces BFA-Fairfax for the Vermont Division III title on Saturday. Valley News — Ryan Dorgan Purchase photo reprints »

Woodstock — During this special season, undefeated Woodstock football team’s most impressive facet may be its brilliant special-teams play.

While outscoring opponents 507-89 through a 10-0 start — that’s an average score of 51-9 — the Wasps have continuously worked with short fields offensively while pinning opponents deep in their own territory.

The field position advantage comes thanks to booming execution by kicker/punter Hunter Schmell, also the team’s quarterback, and a kickoff unit that’s as fierce as any Woodstock coach Jim McLaughlin has seen in his 31 years leading the program.

“This is the most complete team I’ve ever coached,” said McLaughlin, whose top-seeded Wasps (10-0) go for their second straight Vermont Division III title in Saturday’s championship game against BFA-Fairfax at South Burlington High. “That goes for offense, defense, and special teams, and special teams has been a big one. We’ve got a number of kids whose primary role is on special teams and they’ve done a great job for us.”

One such athlete is senior James Morgan, who sat out his entire sophomore season with multiple leg injuries before breaking his finger in the first scrimmage last year and missing another whole season.

Morgan, who once envisioned himself as one of the team’s primary halfbacks, has made the most of his senior year by becoming a vital cog on special teams. When Schmell’s towering kicks are in flight, opponents can count on Morgan’s No. 7 jersey racing down the field to make surefire tackles inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

“We used to call players like him headhunters, then we called them bullets, but we’re not supposed to call them either of those anymore,” McLaughlin Morgan. “(Sophomore) Will Gault is another one who’s really come to specialize in our kickoff coverage.

“They’ve given us great field position and a lot of short fields to work with. If you pin (opponents) near the end zone and then force a three-and-out. … We’ve had situations where (opponents) punt and we catch the ball and we’re already inside the 20-yard line on offense.”

Morgan has come to pride himself on those contributions.

“With missing so much time the last two years, I really had to fall back on my speed and physicality to contribute to this team,” Morgan said. “That’s perfect for kickoffs. It’s been a great specialty, to help do something important for the team.”

Added Gault: “It definitely sets the tone for the game, when you get down there and make a tackle at the 5-yard line. And it’s huge for (field position).”

The evidence of short drives is contained in Woodstock’s yardage totals. While starting 8-2 last season, the Wasps’ top three running backs combined for 2,611 yards while Schmell threw for 418 yards. This year, the Wasps are 10-0 while the top backs have amassed nearly 400 fewer yards (2,215) and Schmell (308) has thrown for more than 100 fewer.

Smash-mouth fullback Ed Doton has 1,124 rushing yards after totaling 1,500 through 10 games a year ago. Senior Nick Sprague, who broke the 1,000-yard plateau last season, has just 308 so far this year.

Yet Woodstock’s 507 aggregate points are 147 more than what they had entering last year’s title game.

Doton, for one, doesn’t mind the lesser workload. “It’s always a good thing when you don’t have to work as hard to find the end zone,” said Doton, whose 24 touchdowns lead the Upper Valley. “I’d much rather have wins than yards.”

Kickoffs aren’t the only area of special teams where the Wasps have excelled. Schmell has also been money on extra points, having registered 61 PATs and four field goals, including a season-high 42-yarder in the regular season finale against rival Windsor.

While none of Woodstock’s games has been decided by a kick — the Wasps’ “closest” win was 48-19 against BFA-Fairfax in the season opener — Schmell understands the importance of accuracy.

“Especially in high school, there are times when it comes down to an extra point,” he noted. “You see a lot of scores with a one-point difference, and a lot of times the difference is a missed extra point. I actually had a tough time with (PATs) early in the season, but at some point I decided I wasn’t going to miss anymore and I haven’t.”

BFA-Fairfax (9-1) has its own solid special teams, as seen when running back Kris Wehner returned the opening kickoff 87 yards for a score in Saturday’s 27-14 semifinal win against Mill River. Wehner later threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Jack Thompson on a halfback option.

“They run an option(-based) offense, which really challenges your football IQ,” said McLaughlin of the Bullets’ attack. “You have to be very disciplined to defend it. The first game was close in the third quarter. We were only up 23-14 before we caught a couple breaks, scored a couple quick touchdowns. At that point, you gain a psychological advantage and I think that’s why you saw (a lopsided final score).”

Doton feels the Wasps will be up to the task.

“I remember getting hit hard in that game,” the fullback said of the opener. “They’re a good team and I’m sure they’ve been getting better throughout the season, but so have we. We have a lot of mature guys on this team and we’re going to be ready. It’s just a matter of being focused and having the right mindset.”

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