Achievements in life are always more exciting when no one sees them coming. As a coach, you try to build a team or more importantly program, to reach the championship level. But if your school has been playing a certain sport for close to 50 years and has never even had a close call at a state title, chances are the best-laid plans could be characterized as a far-fetched dream at best.
This year’s Green Mountain boys’ soccer team is now allowed to dream. Against odds which were fairly high, this year’s edition of the Chieftains had a strong preseason, captured the all-important Josh Cole Tournament, kept improving, and Saturday, Nov. 2, had the Vermont State Division III state championship trophy in their possession.
Coach Cole Wilhelm had this day in mind when he took the head coaching position. Even he was caught off guard about the trip his team took him on this season. He knew the most important thing to overcome was Green Mountain’s soccer culture. Many good things have happened over the years, but he saw something holding overall progress back, and he was driven to do something about it.
“There had to be a culture change,” Wilhelm explains. “Even going back to when I played and before, it was so easy for some players to just say there is always next year. I call it ‘the curse of next year.’ There has always been this mentality aspect that when the team gets down it’s ‘Who cares? We are going to lose and look to the next game.’”
“I tried to turn it around by telling this group how many years have been wasted. One thing is for sure, there is no next year after you graduate and the curse keeps carrying on. I told them if you think you are going to lose, make sure you leave everything on the field.”
The coach felt a difference early in this fall’s preseason. This year’s roster was boosted by the addition of four Black River athletes. Two had transferred in and two were part of the equation because there were not enough players to field a team at Black River in the school’s final year. Wilhelm said, “I always like to build on the last season. We had been 8-5-1, and I knew we had a strong returning cast and we were getting some freshmen and the players from Black River, so I expected we would have a decent season. It really started to come together when we hit the end of preseason, and I started to think this might be a team that could make it at least to the quarterfinals and possibly the semifinals.”
When we do a salute to a championship team like this, I customarily meet with the coach and the captains. The Chieftains had four captains this year: senior James Anderson, juniors Jack Boyle and Sawyer Pippen, and sophomore Elias Stowell-Aleman.
Green Mountain did make that possible trip to the semifinals. They turned back Otter Valley 2-1 in the first round and duplicated that score in the high stakes game with Vergennes, with both games at home. Most long-time soccer observers consider the Vergennes victory a big upset, but Wilhelm saw how his squad developed along the way and knew they were prepared to play the biggest game of their young soccer lives.
“The first really significant moment for us this year was winning the Josh Cole. I always think your play there sets the momentum for the season. The second biggest step in the regular season was beating Twin Valley. My goal has always been to win a state championship, and if you can’t do it as a player, do it as a coach.
“Beating them is always difficult. Buddy [Hayford] always seems to get a hundred kids who are 6 feet 5 somehow. They always display physicality, and we are often afraid because of their size and the fact that they always beat us – not just beat us, but the curse of losing to them in something like a 6-0 loss. For us to go in to extra time and score a game winning goal was just amazing, and I think that got the kids really thinking, ‘If we can beat the team that went and lost to Stowe in the state title final, then we can beat teams like that.’”
Wilhelm said that a couple of losses also likely prepared them not just for the Vergennes moment, but also the 4-3 overtime victories over both Winooski and Mill River. Wilhelm theorized, “Either the loss to Rivendell or Arlington was, in the end, important to us. In both games we dominated possession – we just couldn’t finish. We showed in those games that we could be the team to beat. We just needed to focus on the good that happened in those games and get better from there.”
The coach was not the only one who noticed before the first game that there might be some good times ahead. Anderson said, “Once I saw how hard we were working and how the fundamentals were coming along, I was really excited about what we might be able to do.”
Boyle mentioned, “During our preseason games, I saw us passing and connecting, but now – although that was good – I know we weren’t anywhere near our potential.” Boyle went on to say that the welcoming attitude of the Green Mountain returning nucleus towards the incoming players from Black River helped set the tone. He remembered, “The way these guys took us in made me feel I had been here for two or three years.”
Pippen added, “I was very surprised how quickly we all jelled as a team. It’s like we all came together right away.”
The sophomore Stowell-Aleman, who attended Green Mountain soccer games for years before his arrival, saw growth early. He stated, “I really liked what we had going my freshman year and I thought it would improve this year. I noticed in preseason that we were bonding as a team, and I thought we were ready to take off.”
And take off they did, compiling a 9-5 record and landing a fourth seed and a first round contest with bottom seed Otter Valley. The 2-1 final count might be deceiving to some, but, like Vergennes, the Otters competing in a heavy Division I and II schedule masked who they really were, including a strong defensive team who were offensively challenged. Then Vergennes was next on the path and the Chieftains’ success in this one paved their way to gain the confidence needed to land them in the ultimate winners’ circle.
Anderson shared that he could feel the vibe all around that Vergennes would likely be the end of the road. He related, “I know a lot of people had already counted us out before that game, so it was all the more fulfilling to beat them. So then, I started to realize, we can do this, we can win it all.” He continued, “The coaches had been telling us that everything around us didn’t matter. It was just about us against them. They said it was all about us playing hard and doing what we needed to do.”
Boyle had similar reflections, noting, “By far, Vergennes was the biggest and strongest team we faced. To beat them we had to play one of our best games of the season, and we did that offensively as well as defensively. Once we won that one, I knew we could go far.”
Pippen may have been a bit shocked after the Vergennes triumph, but, quickly came to his senses, as he told me, “It hit me after that Vergennes game, when the coaches said we have another 80 minutes to play. We have to keep this going.”
Although he is the youngest captain, Stowell-Aleman may have seen more Chieftain contests in his lifetime than any current Chieftain. Regardless, he has keen insight. He said, “People told me we weren’t suppose to win the Vergennes game because they were better than us. A couple of times during the regular season, people had said that too, especially against Twin Valley, and we won. So after we beat Vergennes, I believed that was definitely an accomplishment, and we believed beating anybody was what we were capable of.”
Winooski was next, and this Green Mountain team fell behind 3-1 by intermission. It had been a good ride. Wilhelm was confident there was more though. “Once we beat Vergennes, I believed we were going to beat Winooski. It was just a matter of how. We were down 3-1 in the second half, and this team stood up and were like ‘we are not losing this game.’ James Anderson scored his first of two golden goals to give us the wins.”
Anderson was in place to deliver a golden goal penalty kick in the title clash 4-3 over Mill River. The Minutemen were another one of those teams who compete in the regular season with many Division I and II, but, at this stage of the season, it was another game for Green Mountain. Talking about his team’s three regulation goals in the finale, Wilhelm said, “On all three, we took advantage of well-placed balls from the side or the corner that we just got right onto and finished. That is our game plan, coming from the side and showing how dangerous our midfielders and strikers can be.”
Wilhelm had an 18-member squad this year, and I asked him to tell us a little bit about each athlete:
James Anderson: “Senior captain who scored three game-winning goals in the final three games. He was instrumental in leading this team.”
Alexander Kirdzik: “A senior [from Black River] started out as a right mid, but moved him to center defensive mid, and he really solidified in that role.”
Bowen Stark: “A senior [from Black River] who gave 150% whenever he was on the field. Really stood out in the postseason. Instrumental in the comeback against Winooski in the semifinal.”
Sawyer Pippen: “A junior captain who was one of the key components to the defense for our team. He made the crucial tackles and was a very technical player.”
Skyler Klezos: “A junior goal keeper who was a rock back there, making crucial saves and keeping us in the tough games.”
Ty Merrill: “A junior left mid who is instrumental in our game of playing wide and sending dangerous balls into the middle of the field.”
Ty Veysey: “A junior mid who is a hard worker who gives 100% on the field and scored some goals.”
Jack Boyle: “A junior captain, center defensive mid. Jack was a huge component of our midfield game. He is strong and not afraid to use his strength to dominate the midfield.”
Elias Stowell-Aleman: “A sophomore captain and right mid. He makes a lot of dangerous plays on the right of the field and is part of our game of possession and playing wide on the field. He tallies a lot of assists.”
Everett Mosher: “A sophomore forward who scored 31 goals this season and is technically a gifted forward who has a nose for the goal.”
Kagan Hance: “A sophomore who is Pippen’s other half in the middle of the defense. He is technical and not afraid to make dangerous runs on offense and is a solid defensive player.”
Jayden Hinkle: “A sophomore defender who is a strong kid and not afraid to make dangerous runs from the defense.”
James Birmingham: “A sophomore midfielder who works hard in practice and games.”
Colby Clouart: “A sophomore midfielder who also works hard in practice and in games.”
Evan Hayes: “A sophomore goal keeper who works hard in practice and in games. He is one of the voices on the team always keeping the intensity high in games.”
Eben Mosher: “A freshman defender who had a standout year as a starter on the defense. He is tall and strong and not afraid to make crucial tackles and is a technical player and has dangerous service on set pieces.”
Ben Munukka: “A freshman forward/midfielder who tallied some goals and is a strong player who is technical and not afraid to challenge in the air.”
Liam O’Brien: “A freshman midfielder who works hard in practice and games.”
Wilhelm is assisted by his best friend, Jacob Walker, and the two were teammates in 2011 when the Chieftain teams’ were coached by Walker’s father Scott. The championship was a long-time pursuit by Wilhelm and both Walkers, which culminated in the 4-3 overtime win over Mill River.
Wilhelm says of his coaching relationship with Walker, “We play good cop, bad cop for the most part, but he completes me as a coach. He focuses on the goalkeepers and the defense, and I handle the midfielders and the offense. We have the same vision of where we want to go. We always fed off each other well as players, and it is the same now. During the season, we text non-stop on how to make things better.”