sportsOnce upon a time, back in the 1970’s I believe, the Vermont Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association (VSSA) were born. Over the years, they have recognized many athletes throughout the state for their achievements on the field or court or wherever they athletic endeavors are pursued.

One of the staples of the VSSA has been to recognize state athletes of the month. The southern part of the state has had a number of winners in the last forty plus years, but in general, the north, who has the majority of the schools and the majority of sports writers and sportscasters, has dominated the winners circle on a regular basis. That is why the fall of 2017 has been very special. Not only has the south held their own in the competition, this area claimed three athletes of the month, in a three-month period. Tremendous!!

The honors began in September when Green Mountain’s Mack Walton was recognized as the Vermont Male Athlete of the Month. Walton’s Chieftain soccer team had a strong season, but couldn’t advance past the quarterfinal round of the Vermont Division III play-offs, where they bowed to top seeded Twin Valley 5-2. However, during Walton’s four year tenure, Green Mountain won a post season game in three of those years, a feat never accomplished before in the legacy of Green Mountain soccer and the 32-19-5 record during Walton’s four varsity years, was equal to any similar period in the school’s history. Green Mountain has advanced to four semi-final games over the years, with the last coming in 2002.

Walton’s skill allowed him to be chosen for this summer’s Lions Cup Soccer Game to be played versus New Hampshire on July 15 and has earned him an opportunity to play Division I soccer at Clarkson University, where he plans on majoring in Physical Therapy. His soccer coach, Brian Rapanotti gave him the ultimate compliment when he said,

“He’s as good as it gets. I have never seen anyone, who played as hard in any sport. He never takes a second off in practice or in games, he is a great competitor.”

Green Mountain’s Mack Walton controlling play. Walton was the Vermont State Male Athlete of the Month in September. Photo by Doug MacPhee

Honors again came to the reporting area, when Murphy Hicks, from Bellows Falls, was named the Vermont Female Athlete of the Month for October. Hicks doesn’t have personal statistics, because halfbacks for the most part, don’t post goals or assists, but like Walton, she manned her position at halfback for four years and the teams success during that time, bolstered by a stingy defense, culminated in two straight Vermont Division III state championships. During Hicks’ time with the team, the Terriers went 49-3-3 in the four-year regular season and advanced to three title games and a semi-final. Some great numbers on their own.

Hicks is going on to play Field Hockey in college next year at the Division II level at American International College, where she plans to study Occupational Therapy.  Terrier coach Bethany Coursen saluted her defense often during the season and said of Hicks,

“She is very solid on our backline. In fact, she’s our wall. She stops most everything that goes back there without any problems and she provides great leadership and communicates well. I am honored that she has chosen to play field hockey in college with her having a choice of sports to play. We have had a number of players to go on to play in college, but Murphy will be the first at the Division II level.”

Bellows Falls football player Jake Lober was the Vermont Male Athlete of the Month for November. Lober, like the two previous mentioned winners, was a part of his team at the varsity level for four straight years. Terrier football coach Bob Lockerby referred to Lober during the season as “one tough kid,” and said

“he can pick you up yards, throw blocks when you need ’em and on defense, he is something else.”

Lober filled all those shoes throughout his career. When the season ended, Lober was not sure what he felt would be best for his future, but now he has decided to go on to school and he is set to continue playing football at Castleton State University, where he will study for a degree in business. Lober played in the North-South football game and that contest concluded his high school career. Like the other two winners, the teams, which Lober played on, had team numbers to write home about during his years in uniform. The totals for Jake’s four years were 32-7 in the regular season and a Vermont State Championship in his senior year.

Three athletes in three different sports and in one geographical area in a three month period were named Vermont State Athlete of the Month. Pretty special stuff. So I decided to get the three together, to see if they possibly had anything in common.

Interestingly enough, all three are three sport athletes this year. Two of them, Walton and Lober met before high school, playing a sport, baseball, they have rarely played since. Hicks and Lober have known each other since seventh grade, when they started attending school together. Hicks is the only one, who has played three varsity sports throughout the high school years. They all showed loads of respect for each other’s sport. None of the three had heard about the Vermont State Athlete of the Month Award before they won their honor.

Walton told us he realizes that “soccer is different from both football and field hockey because of the fact that you play with your feet. Foot coordination is very important in order to be successful. You need footwork, speed, strength, balance and then it comes down to shooting and passing.”

Hicks felt that “being able to control the ball when you pass, shoot or dribble were skills unique to field hockey” and obviously using a stick, is unlike anything you do in football and soccer. Hicks also felt if the other two were to play her sport, another big adjustment would be “getting use to all the whistles and what they mean. There are a lot more whistles in my sport.”

Lober knew one thing for sure about his sport, “it’s a lot more physical. We use speed and footwork and those other things the other two use, but strength is probably the most important thing. That and you have more people who have to use teamwork all at once to be successful. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you can’t play for yourself. Myself, I love football because I like to hit people.”

Walton was a little envious that both the others had won state titles, but he understood the landscape of their success. The senior standout remembers when his mom Julie was head coach of the Green Mountain girls soccer team and the ride her team took in 2010.

“They went to the finals and that was exciting for everyone, but I know we are a decent size D III school, but we play in a world where there are even some D IV schools that have success regardless of the number of student athletes they have. I now know that it comes down to culture for successful schools and whether the rest of the school has a stake in it. When you have teams that win titles or come close year after year, it gets the youth of the area excited to put in more work in the sport and they want to win their own title and things keep getting better and better.”

Lober agreed saying, “I’ve been watching since I was a little kid and was hitting people when I went to practices for my fathers teams when he was coaching.  I had seen all these other teams win over the years and it was really important we won this year, because we kept working harder and harder every year and it would have been awful never to win.”

Hicks feels in a sense what goes around comes around. She remembers the culture she grew up in playing youth field hockey in Bellows Falls and being coached by the high school players and having now seen her team succeed with the back to back titles and having seen the youth she coached, “look up to us and say things like, ‘when I get to be like you, I’ll get to play for a state title.’ I have to admit, there were times I hated field hockey at first, but when I surprisingly made varsity in my freshman year, I started to realize I might have a future in this. It didn’t use to be my favorite sport, but, maybe our success helped it get right up there.”

Walton’s school may be the only one of the three which has no state titles in his sport, but maybe that is why, he appears to best understand there is more to sports than winning the big one. “I hoped the way we played the last few years has influenced some area youth to play the game. The middle school boys have 30 players so the program is definitely growing. Players like the three of us, are important, to represent our game and serve as role models hoping to make more athletes want to do what we are doing,”

In summary, these three players probably did something no other area trio has ever done, that is win a Vermont State Athlete Award for our region in consecutive months. Congratulations Mack, Murphy and Jake ! A performance by you and your teams well done.

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