Freshman Tatum Shappy scored three goals, and senior Caitlin Dabagian added one as second-ranked Milton earned its sixth championship game appearance in the past eight years with a 4-2 win over No. 3 Montpelier.
In the cold, dark and rain on Wednesday, Shappy, Dabagian and the Yellowjackets took advantage of what the weather and the muddy, worn-out field would provide.
“It’s a good day to retire this field for the season,” Milton coach Cory Payson said.
Phil Hughes Memorial Field, though, has been good for the Milton girls come playoff time. The Yellowjackets have won 18 straight tournament matches at home, including one game moved to the recreation park because of wet conditions and poor turf.
The Yellowjackets now return to South Burlington H.S., where they won a title in 2011 over Hartford. Division II finals are becoming the norm for Milton, which won the title in 2008 and has only missed two finals since, collecting four trophies in that time. Top-seeded U-32 (15-2) will be a new opponent; the two last played in the 2010 quarterfinals. Against common opponents Rice, Mt. Abraham and Montpelier, the only loss for either Milton or U-32 was a 2-1 defeat for the Yellowjackets at home against the Green Knights.
Saturday’s final will kick off at 11 a.m. in South Burlington.
In constant rain Wednesday, Milton (13-1) went up less than four minutes in and, beyond being briefly tied for three minutes in each half, was the dominant side. Milton improved to 6-1 in seven semifinals since 2008 and avenged its only quarterfinal loss in that span, a defeat at Montpelier in 2012.
This year’s mud-plagued contest didn’t allow for the most technical play but gave Milton enough to earn a title shot Saturday against top-seeded U-32 on the comfortable turf in South Burlington.
“It’s definitely extremely hard,” Milton senior Dallas Brodhead said of the weather. “But we came out with a game plan. We knew it was going to be difficult, but we pulled through.”
The third-seeded Solons (12-4-1) ended their year in Milton for the second straight time, having lost last season as a visiting nine-seed in the first round. A year and two rounds later, Shappy led Milton’s aggressive plan of using the heavy rain to its advantage. All but Shappy’s second score for Milton came from a rebound or a deflected shot. The start-to-finish rain made hanging on to the ball nearly impossible for the keepers, and the hosts set out to take advantage of the conditions.
The Yellowjackets utilized the game plan immediately to take a lead, just 2:58 in. Brooke Caragher’s strong 30-yard free kick one-hopped perfectly, forcing Montpelier’s Allison Chadwick to just block the ball and concede a rebound. The bounce-back caught Dabagian following the play in anticipation, and the senior followed her two-goal quarterfinal effort with the score to put Milton up 1-0 Wedneday.
Payson says Dabagian’s scoring touch is great, but she contributes in many more ways.
“Number one is her energy is huge — pumping everybody up and leading cheers,” he said. “And she draws so much attention on the field. She needs a couple of people, and that opens up Tatum or other people to have some space to work in.”
Field conditions hurt Milton as well, most of all with 16:44 left in the first when Montpelier’s Isabelle Boutin worked into the box and her defender slipped in the mud, leaving an 8-yard shot with just a goalie to beat to knot the score at 1-1.
The Yellowjackets were quick to respond to both Solon goals, beginning with Shappy knocking in Katerina Desranleau’s deflected shot to give Milton a 2-1 lead just three minutes after conceding.
“We did talk about it. We talked about crashing the net hard because the balls were skipping,” Shappy said of Milton’s aggressive approach.
Brodhead said everyone was in agreement with Payson’s game plan.
“Payson said ‘Garbage goals are going to win this game.’ And we were there in the right spot at the right time. It was great.”
Montpelier rallied with a penalty kick just 2:29 into the second. Facing a penalty for the second straight game, Madison North guessed correctly and got her hands on the shot as she did in the quarterfinal but again was unable to keep the ball out of the net as the score was tied at 2-2.
Milton responded again moments later, this time with a bit of style and luck.
Dabagian wisely guarded the top of the box on a Solon goal kick and pounced on the weak effort, leaping to head the ball and retain possession. Dabagian impressively headed the ball to herself twice more, the final touch rolled toward the goal line but wide of the post. Shappy chased after the ball and, while falling over the end line, touched the ball toward goal and watched from the ground as her effort defied the laws of physics to roll across the line and give Milton a 3-2 lead.
“Not really sure how I scored it,” Shappy said. “I thought somebody else would touch it, not me. I just tried kicking it in and seeing if anyone was there, but I guess not.”
Payson said Shappy’s second goal was when he felt Wednesday was Milton’s day.
“I thought Tatum’s goal, goal number three when she spun that in, it was an incredible shot but it was also a back-breaker for Montpelier.”
Just more than two minutes later Shappy capped her day and put the game away. She slipped past the last two defenders and wisely took a shot firmly at the center of goal, knowing Chadwick couldn’t possibly catch the slick ball. Sure enough, the attempt was blocked but Chadwick had to drop to the ground and succeeded only in pushing the ball back to Shappy, who netted her third and made it a 4-2 finish.
Wednesday’s rain on Milton’s dual soccer/football field left a unique set of challenges and a difficulty in both movement and ball control. No one had tougher jobs than the midfielders; Milton’s Brodhead played centrally in the disastrous middle of the field and was still the game’s strongest presence from start to finish.
“She was all over the place,” Payson said. “I really think our midfield made the big difference. We kept the pressure in with our offense we kept it up and once it got back to half field we were able to pretty consistently keep it in our offensive third.”
If there’s an apparent key to the success of this particular Yellowjacket team, it’s a relaxed and fun atmosphere.
“They’re having fun,” Payson said. “Soccer should be fun.”