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Undefeated Tigers Dethrone Hurricanes From the Top

Middlebury, Vt. — At least for now, the Hartford High football team’s reign of dominance is over.

The three-time defending champion Hurricanes were ousted at Middlebury on Friday night, 28-6. The loss eliminates the Canes from a chance to vie for their sixth Vermont Division I championship in the past seven years. Instead the undefeated and top-ranked Tigers (10-0) will take on South Burlington for the crown next Saturday at Rutland High School.

It was Hartford’s first playoff loss since the 2006 semifinals — also at Middlebury — as the Tigers avenged postseason losses each of the last two years to the Hurricanes. Middlebury also beat Hartford (6-4, 6-3 league) in Week 2 at Doc Collins Field, 23-0.

“There’s no shame in what happened here. Middlebury is a really good team,” said Hartford coach Mike Stone, who wrapped up his 27th season with the Hurricanes. “They’ve got a good coach (Dennis Smith), a good quarterback, a tough fullback and a good defense.”

The Hurricanes were outgained just 246-210 in total offense and 224-193 on the ground, but the Tigers used big plays to get ahead, and controlled both field position and time of possession.

Middlebury got its first scoring drive started with a 30-yard punt return by Sam Smith on a reverse, setting up a 41-yard scoring drive. The Tigers had to convert twice on third down during the march, the last a 20-yard touchdown hookup on third-and-9. Quarerback Austin Robinson found junior Cullen Hathaway all alone on the left side on an out route. The receiver bobbled the ball twice in stride but hung on while crossing the goal line to make it 7-0.

The Hurricanes answered with a lengthy drive, converting three third-down plays and getting to the Tigers’ 15-yard line on a 23-yard run up the middle by fullback John Bielecki (nine carries, 79 yards). But in the shadow of the goal line, Bielecki was stopped on third-and-3 from the 8-yard line. The Canes went for it rather than attempt a 25-yard field goal, but Dylan Rice was wrapped up a yard short of the first down.

“We had a chance on that play, and we just didn’t get it,” Stone said. “If we get in on that drive, it’s a 7-7 game.”

Both teams had trouble holding onto the ball, but the Canes found themselves on the short end of the field position — giving the ball back over to Middlebury with a short field at the Hartford 34.

Robinson ran for 19 yards before Hathaway ran in from 11 around the right side to make it 14-0 with 2:58 left in the first half.

“I wish we would have punched it in the first time instead of giving it right back, but our defense came up big,” coach Smith said. “We were able to take advantage.”

Field position stayed in Middlebury’s favor at the start of the second half, with Jakob Trautwein sacking Hartford QB Greg Shinn inside the 20 to force another three-and-out. Taking over at the Hartford 44, the Tigers took advantage of a face-mask penalty and made it 21-0 when Hathaway scored his third touchdown of the game.

Robinson, who ran for two touchdowns against Hartford in the regular season, noted the importance of staying aggressive offensively in the second half.

“We have a lot of guys on this team that remember last year (a 34-0 Hartford semifinal win in White River Junction) and remember two years ago (a 42-6 Hartford win in the title game),” Robinson said. “It’s Hartford. You’ve got to keep your foot on the throttle or they’re going to come back.”

The Canes engineered their best drive of the game to wrap up the third quarter, but it again ended in disappointment. Patrick Libuda ran up the gut for 15 yards, Greg Shinn scrambled for 12 more and Dylan Rice burst down the left sideline for 25 to get Hartford inside Middlebury’s 30. The Canes got another first down to the 16 before a high snap resulted in a loss of 11, and the Tigers forced negative yardage on two straight running plays. A screen pass from Shinn to Bielecki went for only nine of the necessary 21 — forcing Hartford to turn it over on downs once more.

“That high snap was another crucial play,” Stone said. “But you have to give their defense some credit. They would get caught off guard a little bit the first time they saw a play, but the second time they saw it, they were right on it.”

Then, with less than eight minutes left, Middlebury’s Connor Quinn snagged a Shinn pass on the sideline in Hartford territory and returned the interception 13 yards. Two plays later, it was 28-0 as Smith went up the middle from 25 yards out standing up.

The Hurricanes responded with a 75-yard scoring drive, keyed by Bielecki’s 37-yard scamper to the 5. On third-and-goal, Shinn found Rice for his first touchdown pass of the season to make it 28-6 with 5:15 left.

Extra points: Middlebury senior linebacker/placekicker Josh Stearns went 4-for-4 on extra points and forced a pair of touchbacks. ... The Hurricanes elected to be introduced as a team rather than have their starting lineup read by Middlebury’s public address announcer. ... Trautwein led all rushers with 99 yards on 10 carries. The Canes’ Bielecki had 79 on nine, Rice ran for 68 on seven and Libuda had 33 on eight. ... Hartford Athletic Director Joe James was clean-shaven for the first time all fall — he was waiting for the Red Sox playoff run to end. ... Middlebury’s most recent title came in 2002 in a 3-0 win over Hartford. The Tigers will be going for their ninth championship overall.

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