Vermont stuns NH in Shrine

CASTLETON, Vt. – Same old, same old? Not without a big, fat asterisk.

Saturday’s Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl bore the same patina that the annual Vermont-New Hampshire high school football tilt has displayed for most of the past 15 years. One team overwhelmed the other on the field, on the stat sheet and on the scoreboard by halftime, leaving little doubt as to the final result.

For a change, the dominator wore Green Mountain hues and performed in historic fashion.

Riding a thorough defense that held New Hampshire to negative first-half yardage, Fair Haven quarterback Ryan Alexander tossed five touchdown passes in the opening 24 minutes in Vermont’s 50-2 rout in the 63rd Shrine Game at Castleton University’s Spartan Stadium.

The decision emphatically ended New Hampshire’s 15-year winning streak in the annual gridiron get-together. Vermont’s 48-point margin of victory set a Shrine Game record.

Bedford’s Willem Fargo was selected to the New Hampshire team. Bishop Guertin’s T.J. Hart, a Concord resident, impressed in defeat for New Hampshire with a game-high 11 tackles. Nashua North’s Phil Pereira, Souhegan’s Mike Mancini and Aaron Stonebraker, Milford’s Bryce Walker and Campbell’s Conor Gannon were also chosen to represent the Granite State.

As much as was made of Fair Haven coach Brian Grady’s return to the Vermont sidelines, where he last engineered a Green Mountain win in the 2000 Shrine shindig, more notice belonged to Vermont’s defense. Grady maintained in Saturday’s run-up that his defense might have been faster than his high-speed offense, and his prediction came to devastating fruition before the contest was half done.

Vermont defenders harassed New Hampshire quarterback Stephen Hedberg of St. Thomas – and his occasional Merrimack Valley fill-in, Ian Curtin – into three interceptions, one lost fumble, four sacks and precious little time across midfield. And Grady’s offense worked even better than he could have imagined, topping the Vermont-record 47 points his 2000 team tallied before the third quarter was over.

"The speed of our defense just really helped us get to their QB," said Hartford High’s Justin Pero, part of a line and linebacking rotation that held Hedberg and company scoreless. "We knew he didn’t like pressure, so we put as much pressure as we could. We ran our plays perfectly, we got through the gaps, we fought as hard as we could to get there, and I think we bothered him a little bit."

Alexander didn’t have to be prolific in victory. Accuracy and opportunity combined on a 12-for-21, 148-yard passing night that included the five TDs to three different receivers. One of them, Fair Haven teammate and Castleton resident Lucas Czarnecki, secured three of them to become the 11th player in Shrine history to post a three-touchdown day.

"I said all week that we had some dominating skill guys," Grady said. "I thought our defense was phenomenal. First two days, we couldn’t move the ball against our own defense. We knew they were going to be really good."

Vermont started the game with a bang thanks to a bomb.

Alexander marched Vermont 53 yards with the game’s opening possession, connecting with Czarnecki on a 37-yard touchdown pass just 73 seconds into the contest. Vermont added to the lead two minutes later, Rutland’s Andy Kenosh converting a 22-yard field goal after Middlebury defensive tackle Nicholas Beauchamp forced a fumble at the New Hampshire 1-yard line.

New Hampshire managed little on offense over the opening 12 minutes, yet the Granite Staters could have dented the scoreboard on their one chance. Winnisquam’s Tim Harmon snuffed a Kenosh punt deep in Vermont territory, which InterLakes-Moultonborough’s Nick Brothers recovered at the Vermont 6. The Green Mountain defense stiffened, forcing a pair of end-zone incompletions from Hedberg before Sanborn’s Christian Ehlers pulled a 25-yard field goal wide left.

"We were excited to come out and really pound as an offense," Newport High receiver Stephan Nix said. "We’re a throwing offense; we thought we would go a lot faster and a lot quicker and be more dominant, but it didn’t work out that way."

Vermont was its own worst enemy for much of the first half, drawing 65 yards in penalties in the game’s first 15 minutes to aid a New Hampshire offense that had amassed all of 1 yard to that point.

But when it mattered, Alexander delivered. The southpaw closed the first quarter with a 7-yard TD fade to Rutland’s Cam Slade, good for a 16-0 at the quarter break and at least a few raised eyebrows.

"It’s a game of numbers; that’s what we make it," Alexander said. "(It’s) leverage. We put more of their offensive guys against their defensive guys and make one of the defensive guys make a choice that can’t be right either way."

It didn’t get any better for New Hampshire. Alexander connected on three more TD passes in the second quarter – 13 yards to Czarnecki, followed by 10- and 8-yarders to Burlington’s Connor Plante – for a five-touchdown halftime cushion at 36-0. Alexander accounted for 183 of Vermont’s 203 first-half yards; New Hampshire netted minus-48 yards on the ground and minus-18 in total offense by halftime.

Vermont lost little when the do-it-all Kenosh took the third-quarter snaps. He completed Czarnecki’s TD hat trick with an 11-yard toss less than four minutes into the second half and added a second barely a minute later to Rutland’s wide-open Austin O’Gorman from 34 yards. New Hampshire broke the shutout bid when Exeter’s Salvatore Spinosa sacked Alexander in the Vermont end zone for a fourth-quarter safety.

"We had come from 18 different schools; we bonded like I’ve never bonded with a team before," Stevens High linebacker and New Hampshire co-captain Collin Belt said. "It just didn’t translate onto the field. It was a rough night."