By Ben Kaufmann
County Courier

BURLINGTON – BFA-St. Albans went more than 10 minutes without getting across midfield in a slog of a first half Friday against Burr & Burton in the Division I championship game, but trailed just 4-3 at the break thanks to a superhuman effort from goalie Ayla Shea. The Comet offense came to life in the second half, just enough to hold on for a 10-9 win over the Bulldogs for a first-ever program championship.

“This group of players has such heart,” said BFA coach Mary Pipes. “I know people say that about their team all the time, but so many times last year and this year we came from behind. People didn’t expect us to do well and we did because these girls don’t give up.”

In the end, Jodie Gratton and Loghan Hughes each netted a hat-trick for the top-seeded Comets and Sophie Zemianek and Allie Bushey each scored a pair of goals. Shea finished the evening with a dozen saves against the No. 3 Bulldogs and Adelaide Hughes, Rae Alexander and Zemianek each recorded an assist in the championship triumph.

BFA (15-2) was outpossessed, but not particularly outplayed – especially when factoring in Shea – in the first half. Adelaide Hughes found her older sister for the game’s first goal less than two minutes in before BBA (15-3) took a 2-1 lead with goals on a pair of penalty restarts. The Bulldogs added a third with just under 11 minutes to play in the first half when Shea couldn’t quite stop a second straight close-range shot.

The Comets hung tough and got closer on a beautiful play from Alexander, who charged the goal but stopped and passed backwards to Zemianek, who fired in a shot to make it a 3-2 deficit. A true team goal knotted the score with five minutes left in the half; Rachel Needleman scrambled well in the BFA end and got the ball to Adelaide Hughes, who made a quick pass to Allie Bushey. Bushey ran from midfield all the way to the Bulldog goal and, after a few seconds, the ball ended up with Gratton for a wraparound goal to make it 3-3.

The Bulldogs scored with two minutes left in the first to take a 4-3 lead into halftime, but for a Comet team which had just erased a five-goal deficit late in the semifinal against CVU, there was no reason to be alarmed.

“We had our confidence that we needed, but we were also hesitant because they’re an amazing team,” Shea said. 

“They did, they believed,” Pipes said. “BBA is an awesome team, we found that out last year. I think our five-goal comeback against CVU got us a little turbocharged.”

Gratton shoveled in a nifty shot off a penalty restart to knot the score at 4-4 just over five minutes into the second half but Burr & Burton retook the lead less than a minute later. Loghan Hughes got a ball to Zemianek for a goal and a 5-5 score less than a minute after that and Bushey scored a beauty of a goal soon after to make it a 6-5 BFA lead with 15:35 remaining.

Shea made an unreal save on a point-blank shot with 13 minutes to go, so when Loghan Hughes scored 30 seconds later it made for a two-goal BFA lead, 7-5 with 12:29 to play. The next two goals went to the Bulldogs to tie the score for the fifth and final time Friday at 7-7 with just under 10 minutes to go.

Among the plays of the game was BFA’s next assist, a brilliant no-look pass from Zemianek to Gratton for an easy finish and 8-7 Comet lead with 9:12 remaining. Loghan Hughes followed with a score from a penalty restart to give BFA a little breathing room. With under three minutes to go, Shea got her stick on a shot but couldn’t stop it and the Bulldogs had the Comet lead down to 9-8 with 2:28 left. What ended up as the winning goal came with two minutes left at the conclusion of a beautiful solo run by Bushey. The Bulldogs scored one last time, but it came with two seconds left and simply delayed the inevitable.

“Being behind this season, I think our motto of ‘Believe’ kicked in,” said Gratton. “It definitely kicked in today and we just kept going, we never gave up and kept fighting and going to the last horn.”

Though scoring picked up in the second half, defense and goaltending was first and foremost what delivered a title to St. Albans. BFA’s two losses this season came in the only two games it failed to score 10 or more goals, but BFA’s back line of Needleman, Heather L’Esperance, Emma Archambault and Kalli Tabor held down the fort until the attack could break through against a potent Bulldog team. And, of course, BFA had Shea and her dozen saves in its net.

“Ayla had a fantastic game,” Pipes said. “Not only did she save things, she’s there quarterbacking the whole defense and telling them where to go and telling our middies when to drop back and who to pick up. I don’t know how she sees the whole field and everything, she’s amazing. She’s such an asset to our program.”

Asked if she believed her team would have had a chance in the second half if Shea hadn’t been there in the first, Gratton recognized the help Shea provided and noted that everyone on this team has vital importance.

“No, Ayla is a big part of this team. But honestly I don’t think we would have had a chance if we didn’t have anyone on this team. Everyone on the team whether you’re sitting on the sidelines, a coach, on the field, in net, everyone had a huge role today and the whole season.”

If Shea was the MVP of the first half, Gratton surely earned the honors in the second. The junior scored two of her three goals in that frame but did so much more. Twice in a row with her team nursing a small lead, Gratton collected the loose ball from a faceoff and kept possession with the Comets. When a Zemianek shot went off the post late, Gratton caught the rebound clean and extended BFA’s time with the ball. She stole the ball and drew a foul in front of BFA’s goal to end a Bulldog attack with just over a minute left and scooped up an errant BBA pass in the final seconds.

“She’s such a gritty player. Everything she does, she does to win,” Shea said of Gratton.

“Jodie has stepped up her play so much this year,” Pipes said. “She was a good, solid, dependable player last year, but this year she’s been phenomenal. She was everywhere.”

There was additional support in the attack, of course. Alexander, Caroline Bliss and Kayleigh Branon were all solid from start to finish. Not to mention Loghan Hughes, who took hold of BFA’s all-time goals record this year and nearly finished her career with 200 despite losing a full season to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She’s great,” Shea said of Hughes. “You just watch her play and she’s so confident. She and her little sister Addie, they play exactly the same and it’s just amazing having both of them on the field.”

Hughes, who has won individual championships in both cross country and track and field, said what she’ll remember most about her time as a Comet is this particular team and banner.

“Definitely my team,” said the UCONN-bound runner. “It’s a whole different feeling to win a state championship with a team. I love these girls, they’re so supportive and so positive.”

The focus for all seemed to be on each other Friday, which goes a long way to explaining how the Comets got this far.

“I’m super excited for our program,” Pipes said. “This is a great group of girls.”

“It means everything,” Shea said. “It’s just so great having a win with these girls. They mean everything to me.”

A year to the day after beating then-undefeated No. 1 Burr & Burton in the 2021 semifinal, there was just no reason not to believe Friday would be special. That belief paid off, and helped set a new standard for BFA-St. Albans lacrosse in the process.