There are plenty of ways to describe the Stowe High School girls’ 2020 soccer season.
But, if head coach Tyler Post and his squad had to pick one word to sum it up, it would probably be champions.
That’s because it turns out that Cinderella’s footwear is actually soccer cleats, and her garb is actually the white, green and black of the Stowe High Raiders.
Ranked No. 10 in Division 3, with only two regular season wins, the Stowe girls’ varsity squad went on an historic run through the postseason, pulling off four straight upsets to claim the 2020 D-3 state championship.
The Raiders capped their run with a dominant, 4-0 win over No. 4 Vergennes in the D-3 title game on Saturday, Nov. 7, at Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford.
“I can’t say enough about every single one of these players,” Post said. “All coming together and fighting for each other, it’s awesome. It’s awesome!”
“We’ve all just been really good friends, and supportive of each other and we just believe in ourselves and have fun together, which is amazing,” said goalkeeper Anika Wagner, a junior.
After a scoreless first half, and buoyed by the halftime arrival of Olivia Carey, who had to miss the first 40 minutes of the title bout and is the only senior on the squad, the Raiders came out after the break and blasted Vergennes, scoring four goals in the final 30 minutes of the game.
Freshman midfielder Sarah Hailey led the way for that offensive outburst, scoring twice and assisting on another goal. Izzy Mitchell added a goal and an assist and Lucia Lovell had the other score.
Wagner and the stout Raiders defense kept Vergennes at bay the rest of the way to secure the program’s first title since 2016 and its fourth overall. The Raiders claimed back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016 and also won the program’s first crown in 2010, bookending the Stowe girls most successful decade with championships.
This year’s run was easily its most unlikely.
The Raiders played three straight road contests to reach the title game. The team upset No. 7 Northfield Williamstown, 1-0, in the opening round and then went on the road and pulled off one of the upsets of the decade, upending No. 2 and three-time defending champion Thetford, 2-1, in the quarterfinals to end that team’s run atop the division. Then came the semifinals, when Stowe headed to No. 3 Windsor and upset that squad, 1-0, to book a spot back in its first finals in four seasons.
The Raiders relied on a rock-solid defense to keep them in games all season while the offense often struggled to get its legs under it; in their eight regular season games Stowe was outscored 14-4. But, there were signs that Stowe was not a team to be trifled with, as five of the team’s six losses were by one or two goals, despite the fact that the Raiders played a schedule packed with the top squads in Division 2.
Post knew going into the playoffs that his team was capable of a deep postseason run, but they were going to have to find a bit more offense to make it. Find it they did, as Wagner and the defense continued their strong play while the offense got rolling, outscoring opponents 4-1 in their first three playoff games.
“It’s been close all year, the offense,” Post said, adding that it finally clicked at the most opportune time as Stowe reeled off three straight upsets.
Then came the state championship game, where Stowe matched its entire offensive output from the regular season.
The rest is now history.
Scoreless at the half
Stowe’s team-first mentality was on full display before the Raiders even took the field on Saturday; unlike most squads they chose to be introduced together as a team, despite the fact that a state championship game is one of the few chances for high school athletes to hear their own name called out over the loud speaker and to run out on the field to applause.
Early on, Vergennes put steady pressure on the Stowe goal, but every offensive thrust was snuffed out by Wagner, who finished the game with eight saves, and her defense, led by junior central defenders Lucy Genung and Malinn Sigler. The Stowe offense, led by Hailey, made several good counterattacks to put their own pressure on Vergennes goalie Kate Gosliga, and by the midway point of the first the two squads looked to be locked in a fairly even struggle.
As the half wound down Gosliga made a sliding stop on one Stowe offensive push. After that, Vergennes turned the pressure back up, earning several free kicks and offensive chances that just missed their mark.
“They started taking it to us, and even in the first 10 or 15 minutes of the second half they were taking it to us,” Post said.
Stowe attempted to answer just before the first half ended, as a Raider counter ended with Gosliga down in the box and the ball bouncing free, but a Vergennes defender blocked the Raiders’ shot and the half ended with the score still 0-0.
The second half onslaught
Vergennes’ pressure continued after the break, as Wagner was busy stuffing plenty of attacks and had to make a diving catch on a hard shot six minutes into the half.
But finally, the Stowe offense found its feet. With 10 minutes gone in the half Mitchell served a deep ball at the Vergennes net. Gosliga came out for it and got her hands on the ball, but Hailey was able to run up on her, fouling up the catch just enough. As the ball bounced free in front of the net the freshman tapped it in, giving Stowe a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“We’ve been talking, throughout the season, about pressuring the goalie,” Hailey said. “I got the opportunity and it paid off.”
“You don’t really expect to score on those, but we were there, we weren’t just sitting back and waiting,” Post said.
Vergennes, which lost the title game in both 2018 and 2019 to Thetford, responded with urgency after Stowe’s first goal. A hard shot just after required another diving save by Wagner, but the Stowe offense stayed aggressive to keep the pressure off her and the defense after that.
A hard shot by Hailey five minutes after her first score just missed, and Olivia Gianni had her own near miss soon after. The Raiders cleared a good scoring chance for Vergennes on a corner with 18:30 left to play and snuffed out another on a free kick with 15:00 left on the clock.
Then, with just over 12 minutes left in regulation, Stowe got back on the board. Hailey, who had been making runs up the left side all game, made another, then worked her way down the end line before flicking a pass back to the middle of the 18 and a waiting Lovell, who blasted a shot into the back of the net for a 2-0 lead.
“I’ve been trying to do that for awhile, but my ankle has never been great,” Hailey said. “I saw Lucia was wide open and she has a great foot, so I just laid it off to her.”
“Sarah’s been doing similar stuff all year,” Post said. “I know she had two goals, but the prettiest to me was the assist.”
“We talked about trying to draw the defense to open up the center of the field, and she was able to do it on that play,” he said.
The prospect of losing a third straight state championship seemed to take some of the air out of Vergennes’ sails, and the Raiders continued to push for an insurance goal after going up by two. Hailey had another close call with just under 10 minutes to play, and more steady pressure from Stowe ended in another goal with 4:30 left, when Mitchell collected the ball near the sideline and launched a long, arching shot toward the far post that dropped in just under the crossbar for the game-sealing goal.
Hailey added her second goal, another one from in close where she took on Gosliga, with just 9.8 seconds left in the game, putting an exclamation point on a sparkling second half for Stowe that ended with the Raiders as state champions yet again.
“It feels great, we’ve been doubted the whole season and then the playoffs game and we really stepped it up,” Hailey said. “We improved so much, we got so much more chemistry as a team.”
Carey, the sole senior on the squad, missed the first half of the championship game because she had to take the SATs at Hazen Union. She and her mom rushed to Hartford after she finished, and she arrived at halftime, walking up to her huddled teammates as they cheered her arrival.
Carey got in the game later in the second half, but her arrival, as Stowe was in the midst of Vergennes’ longest and most consistent offensive push that spanned both halves, gave the Raiders a shot in the arm just when they needed it.
“I think we really wanted to do it for her, she’s the only senior and it really got us fired up,” Wagner said.
“Obviously we needed it,” Post laughed. “0-0 at the half, then a 4-0 second half.”
“I think there definitely was another little energy spurt, seeing her, even though she’s the only senior she’s a big part of this team,” Post said. “Having her there as a teammate, I think that gave us a little extra juice.”
That extra juice helped Stowe make history and complete a Cinderella run for the ages. According to records kept by the Vermont Principals Association, No. 10 Stowe’s state-title win is the first time a double-digit seed has won the D-3 crown.