As the crowd straggled out of the Rutland High football stadium, reluctant for the celebration to end, one hushed voice could barely be heard through the dark beyond the lights and those still rejoicing: “Oh my gosh, they almost killed themselves with penalties.”
Indeed, if penalties were lethal, many of the Champlain Valley Union faithful might have met their demise on Saturday night. Instead, at the end they were thrumming with an energy that only comes from victory — state championship victory.
After the final 2.5 seconds ticked off the clock, and Middlebury’s last gasp to snatch victory from CVU’s clutches bounced in the end zone, ensuring the Redhawks’ 24-19 win and the school’s first-ever state championship, team members ran and leaped with an uncontainable joy.
And then the hugging began.
First it was players hugging players and players hugging coaches. Then, it was students, parents, family friends and people who just love CVU football embracing on the field in a huge community hug.
Although the season started with the Redhawks besting Middlebury 56-19, this game was another matter. Even with CVU hanging to an 11-point lead for much of the second half, the outcome was not a certainty until the time on the scoreboard read all zeros.
The Redhawks got on the scoreboard first. With fourth-and-1 on the 9-yard line, CVU elected to go for it.
Quarterback Ollie Cheer hit Jack Sumner with a short pass. Sumner dodged would-be tacklers, crossing into the end zone with not quite six minutes burned off the clock.
The kick was good and the Redhawks were up 7-0.
Middlebury answered back with a touchdown of its own shortly into the second quarter, but the point-after kick bounced off the goal post, keeping CVU out front 7-6.
With 4:48 left in the first half, the Tigers took the lead when Cole Schnoor scored for the second time on a 21-yard run to take the lead 13-7.
At the 1:48 mark, CVU’s Mark Rutherford put the Redhawks back on top with a 5-yard score, and Aidan Morris kicked a 42-yard field goal for a 17-13 lead at the half.
Sumner scored on an 11-yard run halfway through the third quarter, putting the Redhawks up 24-13, which is where it stood until things got too interesting, and possibly terminal, for CVU fans in the fourth.
Late in the game, Middlebury continued to rely on its imposing run game, a debatable choice with so few minutes left and the Tigers needing two scores.
Finally, with just over three minutes left, Middlebury turned to the pass, connecting on a couple of long throws and scoring. But the Tigers’ 2-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful, making the score 24-19.
The Redhawks ensuing possession was stalled by multiple penalties, and they turned the ball over on downs with about two excruciating minutes left.
Middlebury marched down the field, but time ran out before they could make it into the end zone. A final pass from the 8-yard line fell to the ground. And the buzzer sounded.
For many of the Redhawks seniors, this victory was a long time coming. Many of them have played together since elementary school and were teammates on an eighth grade Buccaneers team that went to the state championship but lost.
Last year’s CVU team went to the state championships, coming close but losing to Essex.
So, this win came with a relief baptized by tears on many faces.
“Too much anxiety,” said Mitch Terricciano. His son Trey, a senior and a team captain, had experienced those earlier disappointments. “This is literally the last time he will put on that uniform.”
Not a bad celebration to dress out for.
Wide receivers and defensive backs coach Chris Destito said the parade of penalties late in the game was frustrating, but he knew all along his team was going to win.
“I’m just so happy for these players to experience this,” Destito said. “We ask so much of them. Not just in the fall and the spring, but all year. For four years. It’s great to see them achieve this goal.”