By Ben Kaufmann
MILTON: A 2-0 semifinal win over Middlebury on Wednesday sent unbeaten Milton to Saturday’s Division II championship game in pursuit of its first title since 1991.
Caden Button put No. 1 Milton (10-0) ahead on a penalty kick earned by Kyle Brown late in the first half against the No. 4 Tigers (7-3-1). Brown assisted a goal by Manolis Anemeikos midway through the second half to give the hosts a little breathing room on their way to Saturday’s title tilt with No. 6 Montpelier.
Having lost championship games in 2006 and 2016, this Milton group has a chance to cap an unbeaten season with the first Yellowjacket crown in 29 years.
“It would mean everything,” said Button, a junior defender. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this moment. I really love this group and it would just mean a lot to win a championship.”
Button converted from the penalty spot with 3:45 left in the first half after Brown was blatantly brought down on one of his many scoring attempts. Most of Brown’s other scoring chances were turned away by Middlebury goalie Owen Lawton, whose 15 saves on the day included three or four spectacular ones on what surely should have been goals for Brown.
“He’s playing so well,” Milton coach Glenn Button said of Brown. “He’s just a combination of size and strength and speed. It’s been such a blessing for us this year. He had some great opportunities and their keeper stepped up big. Kyle hit the ball extremely well.”
The unsung star for Milton on Wednesday, as they have been all year, was Milton’s defensive unit. The back line features Caden Button and Brandon Monahan in the middle with Vincent Hoffman and Riley Zeno on the wings. That core, along with goalie Braeden Caragher, helped Milton go 7-0 at home this year (regular season and postseason) while outscoring opponents 40-0.
“That’s the impressive stat, not to give up a goal in seven games on our field,” said coach Button. “We wanted the road to the finals to go through Milton, it did and we kept a clean sheet here for the season.”
Caden Button shared the credit for a great defensive unit with Milton’s lethal midfield. Cooper Goodrich, Chance Rose, Kyler Kelley and Cam Fougere are all among the most dangerous two-way players in the region and provide a perfect link between Milton’s defense and scorers like Brown, Anemeikos and Zack Logan.
“We just have good chemistry together,” Caden Button said of the Yellowjacket defense. “We keep our shape, our midfielders help a lot too, but we really play well together.”
Up 1-0 at the break on Wednesday, Milton looked to be in a bit of trouble to start the second half. Middlebury earned a penalty kick just two minutes in, but put the attempt over the crossbar. In fairly stark contrast to the regular-season finale in which Milton beat the Tigers 5-0, Wednesday had its moments of panic and the game never felt wrapped up before the final whistle. Milton knew that end-of-season blowout wasn’t likely to happen again, the Yellowjackets had also eked out a 3-2 nailbiter in Middlebury earlier in this season – its lone game giving up more than a single goal.
Needing some insurance on the scoreboard, Milton broke through at the midway point of the second half. Brown led Anemeikos into the Tiger end and Anemeikos pushed through two waves of defenders before unleashing a powerful shot into the lower-right corner for a 2-0 lead.
Winning Wednesday was always the end goal (well, second-to-the-end goal), but being able to do so at home where it has been successful historically was almost as important for Milton. Milton was forced to travel to Stowe last year and dropped that semifinal contest to a Raider team en route to its eighth straight championship.
“Losing in the semifinals last year at Stowe, it’s been our goal ever since that game ended to be a top-two seed and get the semifinal game here,” said coach Button.
It seemed probably for much of this Covid-shortened season that Milton and Stowe would collide once again, this time in the championship as Stowe looked for nine straight (its first seven came in Division III before last year’s move to Division II and title number eight). But No. 2 Stowe was on the wrong end of the biggest shocker of this year’s playoffs when No. 15 Lake Region, which hadn’t won a game all year, ousted them in the first round.
That Lake Region team didn’t stop at one upset, also eliminating No. 7 U-32 before falling to No. 6 Montpelier in Wednesday’s other semifinal. While nobody has made money betting against Lake Region this postseason, Montpelier presents an especially challenging championship test for Milton. Seeds are a little skewed by the shortened season, and Button knows the Solons aren’t going to play like a No. 6 seed on Saturday.
Asked after the regular season finale about teams like Stowe and Harwood at the top of the Division II standings, coach Button made a point to talk about some dangerous teams a little lower in the standings. Montpelier and U-32 were the ones he mentioned by name and on Wednesday he spoke more about why the Solons will present trouble.
“They’re similar to us,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of club players, they’ve got 15 returning kids from their team last year, they’re very good in the back and they’ve got some kids up top who can score and they’ve got a nice keeper. So they’re a pretty well-rounded team, I think we both match up really well.”
Saturday’s contest will be played at South Burlington High School, on a turf field which will likely benefit both the Solons and the speedy Yellowjackets. Montpelier will be in pursuit of its second-ever title, having won its lone crown in 1996 and losing its only other championship appearances in 2004 and 2012. Milton has five program championships, but is 0-2 in title games since its last triumph in 1991.