NEWPORT–It is play-off time in the wonderful world of winter sports, and three of the four area high schools (UCA will not make a stab at the Division 4 basketball post-season this year) will get the second season underway today.
First up is the North Country boys basketball team.
The Falcons finished the year at 6-14, and their record earned them a date with top seeded Mount Mansfield Cougars in Jericho.
The Cougars were an impressive 19-1 in Division one action, and they provide a strong challenge for the Falcons.
In the two times the team's met, MMU won both games, but the first encounter with the boys in blue was a much closer affair as North Country lost by 23. The second game was a more lopsided 75-38 win for Mount Mansfield.
If the Falcons hope to make an impact, they will need to finish, finish, finish.
Caleb Prue and Matt Duncan, as well as Devon Martin can all hit from outside, but it will be up to guys like Colton White, Jason Hatin, and Taylor Prue (if he is healthy enough) to grind it out and make their shots from in tight.
Defensively they are going to have to be near perfect, and not allow any setbacks to affect their play.
Bottom line: North Country will have to play the game of the year if they are going to beat the Cougars and advance to round number two.
Staying on the hard court, the Lake Region boys open up their tournament with a trip to face the Montpelier Solons.
While their records are similar, 10-10 for Lake Region, 11-9 for Montpelier, their regular season opponents are much different.
The Solons played a healthy mix of division one, two, and three opponents, averaging an index point of 2.55.
The Rangers played a primarily division three schedule, and faced one D-2 opponent (Lamoille) and two D-1 teams (Lyndon and MVU), with a 2.20 index rating.
Also, the two teams did not meet this season, which can be a mixed bag for the Rangers, as the familiarity factor is at about a zero.
What Lake Region has going in their favor is they are peaking at the right time.
After starting the year 1-8, since January 20th, they have lost just twice, so they are ready to roll.
Alex Beauregard, Drew Gallup will need to hit early and often, and big men Seth Lawson and Darik Messier will have to be a strong presence inside.
Off the bench, James Margolla will also need to be a force in the low post, and Caleb Royer, who is always a threat from outside, must make the most of his chances.
Bottom line: It looks like it is a winnable game for the Rangers if they play well, so their fate is in their own hands.
Skipping Division Three and moving right to Division Four, the Craftsbury boys will head to Hazen, where they will play as the home team against Chelsea.
The Chargers tied with Rochester as far as records go, each going 16-4, but Rochester won the lone head-to-head-contest to take the number four seed, leaving the five slot for the Academy.
In the two times that Craftsbury and Chelsea met this season, the Chargers won by fifteen, but in the last game, Chelsea at one point led by twelve before CA made the comeback.
Speaking to that point, what the blue and white must do tonight is come out of the gates ready to play. They need to take it to Chelsea right from the get go, and never take their foot off of the gas.
Jason Martin and Andrew Marckres will have to be tough to defend down low, and Anthony Putvain, who has shown signs of brilliance this year, must be on his game.
Also, expect freshman assist machine Alex Vetere to be finding the open man on offense and, being a pest on defense.
Bottom line: This is a game Crafstbury should win, and if they do, expect a rematch with Rochester in South Royalton on Friday.
Switching gears and heading out onto the ice, the North Country boys hockey team hosts Spaulding's Crimson Tide at the Ice Haus in the night's lone hockey contest.
The two teams wrapped up the year with comparable records. The Falcons were 8-11 and the Tide was 7-12-1.
In their lone encounter, North Country went ahead early, and held off the roaring Tide late, picking up the 3-2 win.
The Falcons have been guilty of making mental errors all season long, and are going to have to eliminate the stupid penalties and unforced turnovers at their own blue line if they want to have success this post season.
On the other hand, if they are playing well, they can skate with just about anyone in the league and could make a nice run.
Logan Fortier, when not in the box, is as good as it gets as far as offensive defenseman go in the league. But after making his foray's into the offense, he must get back in position to help out on D.
On offense, Coach Roy has used multiple combinations, before finally settling on his current three line rotation.
The Nate Stewart, Ross DeLaBruere, Ryan Paul unit must lead as the primary scoring combo and get secondary scoring from the other two lines.
But, the man that it all rests on is goalie Chris Bronson. Bronson has had an up and down season this winter.
He has run the gauntlet from playing perfect hockey against CVU, where he picked up his lone shut-out, to getting blown out of the water against Colchester.
When he is at the top of his game, he is the best goaltender in Division 1. When he is not, he is just another netminder, looking to keep his team in a game.
Both teams have performed well in games against the top teams in the state. The Tide dealt Essex their only non-win, a 3-3 tie back in January, while NCU had one goal losses to both South Burlington and BFA St. Albans.
The final factor is time.
The Falcons last played a game on the 20th, and had their final regular season tune-up against BHS cancelled. Spaulding is coming off of a 5-1 win over Rice on the 25th, and should be ready to go tonight.
Bottom line, if North Country stays out of the box, limits their defensive zone turnovers, and Bronson plays like he knows he can, there is no reason to believe that they can not advance to face South Burlington on Saturday.