BURLINGTON–In all the years I have been watching field hockey, I have never seen Missisquoi Valley Union's team look scared.
On Wednesday afternoon, on the artificial turf at the UVM athletic complex, the North Country Falcons struck fear into the hearts of the mighty Thunderbirds.
MVU (12-3-1) went on to win the contest, 2-1, but it was a lot closer then they would have liked it to have been.
"I am very proud of these girls," said coach Chantelle Bouchard as she struggled to keep her emotions in check.
Missisquoi came out of the chute on fire.
With a flat, fast-playing surface, the T-birds opted to use the short pass to control the ball and dictate pace.
Four minutes in, Vallary Ross took advantage of a rebound opportunity and banged home the game's first goal.
That would be it for a while as the remainder of the half served to display the tremendous talents of goalie Falcon Danielle Gabucci.
Anything that came her way was turned out with gusto.
Her on-field leadership was also a big factor in the game.
She kept her defense calm while MVU pressured early, giving direction, letting them know who to cover, and shouting encouragement to keep her team motivated.
Twelve minutes into the half the Falcons finally got some sustained action in the T-Bird end.
Utilizing the long drive to get the ball down-field quickly, North Country was rewarded with their first corner, but did not get a shot on net.
Their second corner would be more successful.
Under fourteen minutes remained when NCU went back down the field.
MVU deflected the ball out of bounds and the Falcons had corner number two.
With the ball loose in front of the Missisquoi cage, Brittany Fortier found a hole and banged it past the Thunderbird netminder for the goal.
"I think the speed of the ball on this surface worked to our advance," said Bouchard. "Even though some times we couldn't stop it because it was so fast, it still helped us."
Now knotted at 1-1, MVU cranked up the offense, but Gabucci was every bit as intense, maybe more so, as she saved her best stuff for the waning minutes of the first half.
The first of two spectacular saves came with 8:07 on the clock, as she stacked the pads and made a diving two-pad kick save, the likes of which I have never seen.
She followed that with a sprawling stick save with 4:53 left in the half to keep the score tied.
"I was staying in my zone and focusing and directing my D so that they all had someone covered
Said Bouchard, "She is amazing and that stick save was probably the best one I have seen, maybe the best of her career."
It was a real bend-not-break half for the Falcons in the first.
They took MVU's best stuff, turned most of it away, and came out of the thirty minutes of action with a tie.
In the second they almost managed to do it again.
The Thunderbirds were every bit as aggressive as they were in the first, almost taking the lead early in the second on a tip shot that missed high.
After controlling play for the first thirteen minutes they managed to find one more chink in Gabucci's armor, as Camille Rainville scored on a broken play in front of the net.
"We played a pretty good game, but I think we were a little nervous and let a couple of balls get through that shouldn't have," said MVU coach Jeanne Rainville.
It seemed like North Country needed the challenge of being behind to get their offense in motion.
For the final thirteen minutes they clawed and fought to force overtime, and although they fell short, they went out swinging.
9:29 was the time on the clock when Brittany Verge's shot hit a T-bird in the face, ushering in a a wave of scoring chances.
The calls started to go the Falcons way, and they had several dead ball strikes in the MVU end.
Mariah Roberts was on fire, leading the attacks at the opponents net with vigor.
She got off a shot with less than a minute to go, but MVU turned it away.
With the clock almost at zero, Fortier had the last chance for North Country, but it did not go in, and Missisquoi escaped, and I do mean escaped, with the 2-1 win to advance to the Division III final this Saturday.
Had the game gone two minutes longer, I have not doubt that the Falcons would have forced overtime, but if if and buts were candy and nuts, well you get the picture.
Gabucci finished the game with over a dozen saves as North Country wraps up the season with a 4-9-3 record.
"I don't think I have ever seen them play so well in all of my four years with the team," Gabucci said after the game. "I have never been so proud of a team. A lot of young girls really stepped up to the plate.
"It has been five years since we made it here, so that shows you something. We are a good team and deserved to be here. It has been a great four years, and this one was the best."
A lot of lessons were learned on the neon green turf Wednesday, and this is what I took from the game.
North Country has some really good young players, and in the coming years they should provide the Falcons with a lot of offensive potential, while staying true to their defensive style of play.