At first blush, the 2014 Division I boys' soccer post-season looks like business as usual. Perennial power Champlain Valley Union has once again marched through the playoffs and is within sight of yet another state title.
But there is a significant difference between this 12-3-1 CVU team and the one’s before it that rolled up 16 championships for the school known state-wide as "Soccer Central."
When the fifth-seeded Redhawks tangle with No. 1 South Burlington Wednesday afternoon for a berth in Saturday's championship match, the guiding force on the sideline will be newcomer Katie Mack, the first woman to hold a head coaching position for a boy’s varsity team in Vermont. In her first season at CVU, Mack has done what she has at every previous stop in her coaching career – win without fanfare.
Mack, 31, was a three-year soccer starter at Drew University in New Jersey before earning a master's degree in education at the University of Vermont in 2006. She accepted a teaching position at BFA-Fairfax and made Vermont history when she was named the Bullets' varsity boys coach.
Mack, a two-time Mountain Division coach of the year who led BFA to the 2010 Division III finals, left Fairfax after the 2012 school year to accept a teaching position at CVU. She was the head coach of the Vermont Twin State boys' team in its annual showdown with New Hampshire in 2013 but was off the high school coaching radar that fall, filling her time as an assistant for the St. Michael's College women's program.
When T.J. Mead, a CVU alum and former UVM standout, stepped down as the Redhawks' coach following the 2013 season, Mack applied for the job. The selection committee took little time in saying yes.
"Katie was the unanimous choice," says CVU athletic director Kevin Riell. "It was very straight forward, no dramatics at all. It was a tremendous advantage to be able to observe her in the classroom and she was clearly the best candidate."
Mack inherited a squad top-heavy with upperclassmen – 12 seniors and four juniors.
"When I got the job back in the winter I met with everybody," Mack said. "We played together this summer and since I teach at CVU, I knew quite a few of them. But coming together has been a process."
Mack’s biggest worry was continuing the mantle of soccer excellence at CVU, built on the boys’ side by coaches Pete Coffey, Dan Shepardson and Mead.
"There is such a tradition of excellence at CVU – coaches and players feel that expectation," she said. "Sometimes it’s a great and wonderful thing to be a part of and sometimes it’s a psychological burden."
South Burlington coach David Martin, whose Rebels beat CVU 1-0 during the regular season on a goal with 28 seconds remaining, is impressed but not surprised by what he's seen from Mack and the Redhawks this fall.
"It’s a difficult situation for a first-year coach to take on a senior-laden team but I think she has done a great job," Martin said. "They haven’t changed – they are still a possession-oriented team that always has speed."
Mack is the antithesis of the micro-managing class of coach. She believes in putting players in a position to succeed but then letting them deal with the real-time action themselves.
"She’s very talkative and hands-on in practice," said junior defender Will Yakabik. "But when it comes down to the games, she sits back and lets us figure it out on our own."
The fifth seed is higher than those normally earned by CVU. The Redhawks lost their opener to Division II leader Rice, 2-1, and had 1-0 losses to both South Burlington and Essex. The tie was a scoreless draw with Burlington.
But the offensive struggles of earlier in the season have vanished. CVU hung a 6-0 whitewash in a playoff rematch with BHS and blanked Hartford 4-0 in the quarterfinals. In their last four matches, the Redhawks have outscored opponents 20-1.
"At the beginning of the season were a little iffy but we are a lot more organized now," said Yakabik, who had one of the goals against Hartford. "As the playoff season got close our level of play went up."
The showdown with South Burlington will take everything the Redhawks have to survive and advance.
"There have been some ups and downs and some trials, but I think the season has gone really well," Mack said. "But it’s coming together when it really matters and for that I am really pleased."
Here is a trio of additional playoff story lines to consider heading into championship Saturday:
Every post season holds it’s share of surprises, but this fall delivered a cluster of head-shakers. On the girls' side, No. 8 Mansfield stunned top seed Burr & Burton in Division I while eighth seed Thetford knocked off No. 1 Sharon in D-III. This came after No. 1 Lake Region lost to No. 8 Milton and seventh seed Green Mountain Valley eliminated second seed Middlebury in Division II. In Division I, No. 8 Mount Mansfield took out No. 1 Burr & Burton. On the boys' side, No. 9 Hazen bumped off top seed Lake Region in Division III.
The top-seeded Green Knights are back in the Division II championship game for the first time since winning the crown in 2002 after holding off Green Mountain Valley, 4-2, in the semifinals Tuesday. Not to sound too proud, but second-year coach Matt Gazo is not surprised.
"Last year was about changing the culture and focusing on defense," Gazo said. "We have a lot of experience and this year we were able to work on goals. Now we’re a hard team to defend."
Rice went 10-6-1 a year ago in Gazo's first season, losing in the semifinals. They returned offensive dynamo Hussein Hussein (two goals against GMVS), goalie Leland Gazo, and midfielder Jordain Williams and Milton transfer Nate Cary added another elite scorer. That led to a 16-1 season and a chance at a second crown.
Despite the loss of the graduated Emily Kinneston (now a freshman guard for the American University women's basketball team), the Champlain Valley girls have a shot at a fourth consecutive title (and 15th since the state tournament began in 1981) after topping Colchester in the semifinals.
Despite going 14-0-0 in the regular season, the Redhawks were seeded No. 2, behind Burr & Burton, which was stunned in the quarterfinals by Mount Mansfield. But CVU, now riding a 43-game unbeaten streak, has outscored opponents 65-3 this season.
Sierra Morton, Lisa Gagliuso, Megan Gannon, Sydnee Lyman and Bronwen Hopwood lead a long lineup of scorers.