MILTON — With a strong wind at its back, Milton sailed out to a 3-0 halftime lead and never looked back en route to a 4-1 quarterfinal win over visiting Mill River last Saturday.
Strong gusts were in the hosts’ favor for the first 40 minutes, but second-seeded Milton (11-4) was dominant enough to make the conditions irrelevant in earning its sixth trip to the final four in seven years.
“We wanted to take the wind in the first half and just kind of set the tone,” Milton coach Cory Payson said. “Even if we didn’t have the wind, we wanted to set the tone with our pressure and kind of make them feel uncomfortable on the field.
“I thought we played a little too direct but it still worked, we got good chances and we finished them,” he continued. “We can improve on this game for next week, we’re going to need to.”
Next week comes in the form of a Wednesday semifinal against Montpelier on a home field where Milton is unbeaten in postseason play since 2002. The Yellowjackets defeated Montpelier in last year’s first round as an eighth seed but lost in the Capitol City in a 2012 quarterfinal.
Saturday’s win over Mill River was convincing. Led by Caitlin Dabagian’s two-goal, one-assist day, Milton was in the driver’s seat from start to finish. While Dabagian led on the scoreboard, Milton’s biggest asset Saturday was the clear absence of a weak spot anywhere on the field.
“I really thought it was a team effort. It felt like everyone was locked in and doing their jobs. I feel like we played as 11 today,” Payson said.
“The girls coming off the bench really help the other girls who play more minutes be free to run. I really feel like our midfield locks it in most games and puts pressure on the other team.”
Milton’s success began with a stingy defense that didn’t yield a shot on goal until the second half and allowed the Minutemen just a penalty-kick goal. At the other end, the Yellowjackets produced 16 shots on net and turned heads-up plays into a big lead.
Just over seven minutes in, Tatum Shappy swiped the ball from the deepest Mill River defender and easily worked around the keeper to give MHS a 1-0 lead. Eight minutes later, Dabagian earned a corner, and though she knocked the kick too close to the keeper, the ball was bobbled and Taylor Quintin was in the right place to turn the rebound into a 2-0 lead.
“Hustle, we’ve been talking about that all year. I call them garbage goals, but it’s all hustling and just not giving up on a play and getting rewarded,” Payson said.
The third Yellowjacket goal was far from just opportunistic. Dabagian broke free at the top of the box and lifted a firm shot perfectly to the only sliver of goal the Minutemen keeper had left open, for a 3-0 lead at the half.
Mill River got a bit of a rush early in the second with the wind at its back. Milton keeper Madison North made her first save five minutes into the half on a tough deflection during a string of three straight Minutemen corners. North finished with four saves and nearly made five, but her correct guess on Melissa Fay’s penalty kick with 33:14 left resulted in not-quite-enough of a push to keep the ball out of goal. The spot kick made it 3-1 but didn’t lead to further threats from Mill River.
With the game all but over late in the second half, Dabagian won the ball just outside the box and after a few seconds of maneuvering around the Mill River defense, and poked home the final Milton score.
Up next is Wednesday’s 3 p.m. kickoff with third-seeded Montpelier (12-3-1) and Payson said the Solons’ talented offense will require great effort from Milton.
The Yellowjackets are hoping to punch a sixth title-game ticket in eight seasons after championships in 2008, ’09, ’11 and ’13 (Milton was runner-up in 2010.)
Milton’s tough non-league schedule has paid off in another way for the second-seeded Yellowjackets: “It’s nice that we’re here,” Payson said. “They’ve earned it and put in the work for the home-field advantage, so hopefully it pays off on Wednesday.”
Scores were unavailable at press time.