Milton football undefeated amid season full of change

TOP: Milton High School football coach Jim Provost looks on during a team practice. ABOVE: Milton High School football players practice a drill last Thursday. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Jim Provost sat alone in the Milton high school locker room, clipping stacks of laminated sheets he’d soon distribute among his players.

Meanwhile, assistant coaches watched as the football team ran through pre-practice calisthenics, a playful banter detected above the click of bouncing shoulder pads.

Nothing extraordinary jumped out from last Thursday’s scene, but after a season full of changes, even the routine can feel luxurious. 

“Everything is new. It’s literally like learning a new language. Even these were new to them,” Provost said, waving the stack of play sheets.

In Milton, Provost has found a unique challenge as he enters his 28th season coaching. After two decades at Rice, he took off seven years before joining Champlain Valley Union for a seven-year stint.

Two more years away from the game, and Provost has returned to coach his hometown team. A friend of the Hughes family and longtime fan of the program, he said the match just “made sense.”

When preseason began three months ago, questions outpaced answers for the veteran coach and his new team, which needed to learn an entirely new system.

The changes have propelled the Yellowjackets to a 5-0 record, including a recent 41-6 win over Mt. Abraham on Saturday. They’re now three games away from a perfect regular season, with the goal of hosting up to two playoff games and reaching the state finals for the first time since 2003. 

Provost has eased his team’s learning process by whittling the playbook to four passing and running plays, a simplified attack that operates on one of sports’ main tenants: It’s one thing to know what plays a team runs; it’s another to stop them.

Like a notecard for a test, even the color-coded laminates have their limitations, however, Provost said. That’s where Milton stands out.

“Sometimes, you have to take life off the wrist, and you have to be a football player,” Provost said.

So far, the Yellowjackets have shown an intelligence Provost has rarely seen before, allowing him to make more advanced tweaks to what he’s seeing on the field.

Provost is pictured at a team practice last week. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Still, starting the season with only 32 players, Provost has eight two-way players, creating a logistical challenge that requires a deliberate approach to practice and games. The team performs little to no contact during the week, and coaches must rotate players in to stay fresh and avoid injury.

The lack of depth has also inspired a constant message from Provost: “There’s somebody who has yet to make an impact on this team that we’re going to have to count on.” 

Most offer such coach-isms to inspire players who, in truth, rarely see the field during a game’s meaningful moments. This year, however, the next-player-up mentality extends beyond cliché, Provost asserted. 

He said the Yellowjackets still have some work to do on defense, though they’ve allowed only 12 points over the last six quarters of play. Meanwhile, their offense has continued to hum along: Over the first five games, Milton has scored a combined 193 points — an average of over 38 points a game.

Their play seems to have sparked a heightened interest from the community, said senior Trent Cross.

“You can definitely feel it,” Cross said. “We have a lot more support than we’ve had these past couple of years. The stands have been packed the last two games.”

Cross is one of a handful of seniors learning to adjust amid their final high school season. It took some getting used to, Cross admitted, adding Provost supports his players both on and off the field. 

Plus, the Yellowjackets have aired out the ball more this season, a welcome addition for the senior wide receiver.

Milton’s success has surprised even some of its players, said senior Tre Sherwood, who called the Yellowjackets a tight-knit squad that approaches challenges as a unit.

“Doing it week after week is the best feeling ever,” Sherwood said.

Friday brings Lyndon to Phil Hughes Field before a homecoming showdown with Burr and Burton. Milton will then close out the season against Spaulding on October 21 before learning their playoff road.

Cross, pointing to the senior night game, said he’s never beat Burr and Burton, currently ranked second behind Milton for the D-II standings. He offered only a moment’s thought to the game, now two weeks away, before returning his focus to the here-and-now.

“We’re going to take every game like it’s the Super Bowl,” he said.

Any run to the title will require some tense moments, and Provost said he wasn’t sure how battle-tested his team was when the season began. They’ve since won three games by 7 points or less and appear to be ready to perform in crunch time.

“I’m constantly talking to them about how do you handle adversity when it comes your way,” Provost said.

Adversity can take many forms in sports, especially football, where penalties and injuries can derail a drive or even a season. Added is the pressure of performing under a microscope in the wake of the Milton football hazing scandal, an “elephant in the room” Provost said the program has addressed.

“We focus on how we conduct ourselves from this point forward,” he said, adding school officials have been supportive. One principal has asked for text message updates after away games and has attended practices.

Provost also constantly preaches accountability to both his coaches and his players, and earlier this season, a referee commended his team on its sideline conduct.

He walked out onto the practice field last Thursday afternoon, decked out in Milton football gear, a whistle hanging from his neck beside a red marker.

He admits he’s not sure how long he’ll be in Milton, though he imagines it’s his last coaching gig. But after all these years, and amid a potentially historic season, he explained his drive extends beyond wins and losses.

“People will kind of forget about those. It’s really about the relationships you build,” he said.

He pointed to a memory of DJ’ing at a South Burlington school reunion years back, where a group of men tearfully reminisced on the impact of their longtime football coach. After nearly three decades on the sidelines, Provost said he now understands why coaches keep coming back year after year. Now, he hopes to instill lessons that will last well beyond a player’s time on the field.

“I guarantee you, 10 years from now when I see these guys at Rick’s [Grill], it’s going to be a bunch of high-fiving and hugging,” he said.