The Middlebury College football team has surged over the last four years, going 24-5 under coach Bob Ritter, including a 4-1 mark this fall. And the Panthers have been succeeding with an increasing number of in-state players.
Middlebury would normally have one, or perhaps two, Green Mountain boys on its 75-man roster. This season there are five former Vermont high school standouts suiting up for the Panthers, and two of them are playing significant roles.
Sophomores Tanner Contois and Jared Lebowitz – former teammates at South Burlington – are very much in the mix in Middlebury’s high-octane offense. They are joined by junior quarterback Jake Stalcup of Burr & Burton Academy, and freshmen Austin Robinson and Bobby Ritter (the coach’s son), freshmen from Middlebury Union’s back-to-back undefeated state championship teams.
Stalcup (2011), Contois (2013) and Robinson (2014) have all been named Vermont’s Gatorade player of the year.
“It does ebb and flow a bit, but we’ve always had a decent representation from Vermont,” said Ritter, a former Panther now in his 15th season as head coach. “We’re always on the lookout for talented Vermont kids who have done well in school.
“If there’s a common denominator, I think it’s that these guys have grown up here. They love Vermont and what it’s all about and wanted to stay.”
Burlington native on the offense
Contois is a wide receiver and return specialist who sat out his freshman year while recovering from a torn knee ligament suffered in the 2013 Division I state championship game against Middlebury Union. This fall he has caught eight passes for 84 yards and has 305 yards on 11 kickoff returns. He delivered a 96-touchdown return against Williams and caught a 36-yard scoring pass in last weekend’s victory at Bates. He also has a two-point conversion catch.
“Mentally and physically, I don’t think I was ready to come back,” Contois said of last season. “Coach Ritter and I both felt it would be best for me to take the year off.”
“I was really patient with my rehab and now I think [taking the year off] was the best decision I think I’ve made. I’ve had no pain at all – it’s like I’ve got my old knee back.”
Coach Ritter admitted it could sometimes be difficult for a freshman to come back after being away from the day-to-day experiences of being with the team. Not so with the 5-11, 175 pound Contois.
“You always worry about a kid drifting away when he’s been injured and doesn’t feel like he’s part of the team,” Ritter said. “But Tanner was dialed in and ready to roll from the start of off-season.”
Contois was a running back at SBHS but shifted to wide receiver for the Panthers. The Panthers have senior Matt Milano (the New England Small College Athletic Conference offensive player of the year in 2014) at quarterback and a clutch of veteran receivers (five of whom have at least 18 receptions this season).
“But this is a lot more than a just a foundation year for Tanner – he’s right in our starting rotation,” Ritter said. “He does a great job with yards after the catch. He’s got nice moves, he gets vertical in a hurry and he’s very tough to take down. We’re looking to get him the ball as much as we can.”
Contois is surprised he has fit in so seamlessly.
“Last year wasn’t the first impression I wanted to make,” he said. “This year I’m just trying to be fully involved and be a good team player. That fact that I’m getting a little playing time is a blessing.”
A ‘rocket arm’ comes home to Vermont
Lebowitz’ path to Middlebury is as intriguing as it is much traveled. He grew up in Grand Isle and had a choice of high schools to attend. He picked South Burlington because it offered him the best opportunity to start at quarterback as a freshman. He threw for 2,700 yards and 30 touchdowns as a sophomore, including the first TD Contois scored in his SBHS career.
Lebowitz attended high-powered quarterback camps and worked with quarterback coach Steve Clarkson in California. The goal was to earn a Division I scholarship.
“We sat down as a family after my sophomore year and decided I couldn’t get recruited coming out of Vermont,” Lebowitz said. “We made the decision for me and my Dad to move to California.”
Lebowitz played for highly-regarded St. Francis High School outside Pasadena and threw for 2,560 yards and 23 touchdowns while rushing for 200 yards and three scores as a senior. Nevada-Las Vegas offered a full scholarship and Lebowitz became a Runnin’ Rebel.
Lebowitz red-shirted his freshman year but was UNLV’s third-string quarterback, and thus traveled with the team. He was the No. 2 quarterback as a freshman and because of injuries, played in three games, throwing for 344 yards and a touchdown.
“But after two seasons, I missed home, I missed Vermont and I didn’t really love Vegas,” Lebowitz said. “I scoffed at my Mom when she first brought up the idea of Middlebury – why would I give up college being fully paid for to pay $68,000 a year?"
“But when I thought about it, money was the only factor where UNLV trumped Middlebury. Middlebury was a much better school, the perfect location and football isn’t a year-round thing. The joy of coming to Middlebury is the shift went from football to academics where at UNLV it was 100 percent football.”
Ritter had lost track of Lebowitz when he moved to California but remembers well the phone call he received over last year’s Christmas holidays.
“I was ecstatic but not as stunned as you might think,” Ritter said. “The lure of Division I is big but really isn’t what a lot of guys expect it to be. We get a lot of calls and e-mails every year from disenfranchised Division I players.”
Lebowitz knew that Middlebury had become a launching pad for quarterbacks under Ritter. Donald McKillop and McCallum Foote each threw for more than 8,000 career yards before Milano.
“That was a factor, but not the deciding one,” Lebowitz said. “I was thinking more about school and coming home. I wasn’t concerned with the starting position question. I could not play a down and still be completely happy with my decision.”
Milano is firmly entrenched as the starter (he’s thrown for just under 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns this season) but Lebowitz is a key part of the offense. He played most of the second quarter against Colby when Milano was shaking off an injury and threw for 77 yards and a touchdown. He added a 40-yard TD run against Bates.
At 6-4, 200 pounds, Lebowitz has a rocket arm and the ability to run the read option offense.
“Jared is a great player and has some skills that Matt doesn’t have, but Matt is more comfortable with the offense and does everything a little faster right now,” Ritter said. “We’re just really lucky to have two guys like that.”
Ritter is confident Stalcup could step in successfully if needed, but is caught behind two elite quarterbacks. Robinson and Bobby Ritter, who were two-way players in high school, are reserve defensive backs this season, but have been running routes with the offense as well.
“We haven’t had any [Middlebury] Tigers on the team in a long time,” Ritter said. “And as his Dad, it’s nice to see [Bobby] out there practicing. It’s gone well so far but I think it’s a little bit of a blessing that he’s on the defensive side of he ball and I’m on the offensive side, so I’m not directly coaching him.”