Photos and Story by Ben Kaufmann
County Courier

MILTON – A rematch of the last two Division II title games -both extra-time thrillers- came, unsurprisingly, down to the wire on Wednesday. A late push from Rice came up just shy as Milton held on for a 2-1 win over the Green Knights.

Milton squeaked by Rice in the 2017 and 2018 finals and though both teams are well below their usual places atop the standings, Wednesday provided another thriller. An early goal from Molly Loucy and a second-half score by Anna Grasso were enough for the Yellowjackets (3-5-1) to hold off Rice (4-5-1).

“Historically, Rice always comes here and beats us and we go there and beat them,” Milton coach Shawntel Burke said of the recent regular season trend between the rivals. “It’s been many years like that.”

If home field advantage hasn’t existed for either team recently, neutral fields have been kind to Milton. Rice was one made penalty kick away from taking the 2017 title against Milton in a shootout in South Burlington, but the Yellowjackets held, rallied and won in extra kicks. Last year at the same site, a Tatum Shappy free kick goal in overtime gave Milton a second straight title (and fifth championship in six years).

Even with both teams in rebuilding mode this year, Rice and Milton are razor close in the standings. The two are separated by the closest of margins in the average index point ranking used for playoff seeding, though instead of being No. 1 and No. 2, Wednesday’s result saw Milton and Rice swap places to No. 11 and No. 12, respectively.

“We take one practice, one game at a time,” Burke said. “But we always have Rice in our sights because the last two years we’ve played in the state championship and it’s always been tough. They’re a good team, they’re great, they’re awesomely coached. So we’re just super excited.”

Milton came out with more energy than the Green Knights at the start of a game which had been postponed after multiple lightning delays the night before. Loucy pounced to put the hosts up 1-0 less than three minutes in. Rice keeper Khadija Hussein was stellar for the Green Knights, stopping 12 shots in total to keep Rice alive until the final whistle.

Hussein stopped what looked like a certain goal on a corner kick from Milton defender Elizabeth Poirier to Taylor Kieslich with 14 minutes to go in the first half. 90 seconds later, Rice’s Hannah Sheppard missed an equalizer by inches, striking the crossbar. Hussein made strong stops on Emma Grasso and Olivia King in both halves, and when Loucy finally poked a rebound past her early in the second half, a Rice defender cleared the shot off the line.

Another Poirier set-piece led to a Milton cushion midway through the second half, with her free-kick finding Anna Grasso for the finish and 2-0 lead.

With just over three minutes left in the game, Rice’s Alex Dostie got loose on a breakaway and put her initial shot off the goalpost. Milton keeper Kaylee Robie (five saves Wednesday) had no chance to stop Dostie from knocking in the rebound and the Green Knight senior made it a 2-1 game. 

The Rice goal was too little, too late, and Milton held on for the victory. Now having won consecutive games for the first time this season, Burke says she feels her girls are hitting their stride.

“It took us a little while to get together, but it’s fine,” she said. “We have great dynamics, but just getting everyone playing together has been a little bit of a challenge. But I think we’re on an upward swing, which I’m really excited about.”

Burke says as exciting as the Rice rivalry has been, her team has done a good job of staying focused on the next step this season. The next step is a big one for Milton; Burke and the Yellowjackets travel to Spaulding on Friday with a chance to pick up major index points facing a Division I team on the road. Milton defeated Spaulding, 6-0, in a home contest earlier this year.