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The time has come to do our annual accounting of the year that was in Vermont sports.

From protests, to Olympic runs and championships galore... What caught our eye when we looked back at 2021?

Boiling down a year's worth of highlights, heartaches and goodbyes is never an easy proposition, but here are our top stories, in chronological order, based on digital readership and our insights from covering the past 12 months of sports...

1. COVID-19 ravages winter high school playoffs
The winter 2020-21 sports season battled a myriad of COVID-19 related cancellations, including the Division I and IV girls basketball title matches. Rice, the D-I finalist, withdrew from the championship vs. BFA-St. Albans with the recommendation from the state that the team go into quarantine. The Burlington/Colchester cooperative girls hockey team pulled out of the D-I title game against Essex over a reported close-contact COVID case. And Danville faced the same fate in D-IV girls hoops.

In all three situations, the Vermont Principals' Association awarded the remaining teams with championship crowns.  

Over the course of the two-week playoffs in mid-March at least a dozen teams exited over COVID-19-related situations. The virus devastated the D-I boys hockey tournament leaving less than half of the qualified teams eligible to compete.

The Essex boys hockey team was in quarantine for seemingly the entirety of March and caught the attention of the Vermont Department of Health for reaching "outbreak criteria" after a game against Missisquoi. The team finally cleared protocols but was sent back into quarantine after Colchester, the Hornets' quarterfinal opponent, reported having positive cases. Woodstock pulled out of the semifinals, due to a positive case, advancing Essex to the title game with a week to report negative tests.

Garnet Health stepped in to help and unveiled a new Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test machine in the process. The machine turned around the test results significantly faster, for a total cost of $5,000, than the state's standard testing wait time, and the Hornets met their game-day deadline with only hours to spare.

A month of quarantine, $5K in COVID testing: How Essex hockey reached the title game

2. UVM men's lacrosse wins first AE title
After three America East Conference title-game losses in five years, the University of Vermont men's lacrosse team captured glory in May of this year. The first title win in the history of the men's program came on the heels of title losses in 2016, 2018 and 2019. The No. 2 seeded Catamounts came out victorious by a final of 15-10 over No. 4 Albany.

The Cats (9-5) rode a third-quarter frame that sparked the title win and saw six unanswered goals on just eight shots. An impressive four-game win streak that started at the end of April carried the Cats to the title win and a spot in the NCAA tournament field.

"We've really had to mature since the 2019 championship game," UVM coach Chris Feifs said in May. "We've had to learn a lot about ourselves and how to handle those pressure situations in championship games."

3. UVM track athletes protest at meet
The University of Vermont track and field team used the stage at the New England championships on May 14-15 in New Britain, Connecticut, to protest and voice their "embarrassment" and "frustration" over the university's handling of sexual misconduct cases.

About 25 of the school's student-athletes covered up "Vermont" on the front of the school uniforms and apparel. The protest was specifically chosen at the New England championships to raise awareness about an ongoing case, according to then-senior hurdler Cameron McLaughlin.

Then-sophomore pole vaulter Sofia Wittmann shared similar feelings of displeasure as McLaughlin and referenced the university's handling of the case brought forth by Kendall Ware.

Ware, a university swimmer, said she was raped by a member of the men's basketball team and that UVM improperly handled the investigation.    

4. Owen Kellington dazzles on the mound

Union-32 High School alum Owen Kellington, the right-handed pitcher with a blazing fastball and curveball that befuddled Vermont batters for four years, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fourth round of the MLB draft in mid-July.

Kellington was the highest selection of any Vermont high school prospect in the draft, according to the Vermont Baseball Coaches Association. Kellington signed with the Pirates and chose to forego a commitment to the University of Connecticut. The Raiders, who won their first-ever baseball title this season, rode the coattails of the ace that boasted a 0.22 ERA and 133 strikeouts in route to becoming Vermont's Gatorade player of the year.

Kellington reportedly earned a $600,000 bonus with the deal.

5. Vermonters stake claim at 2020 Summer Olympics

Elle Purrier St. Pierre and Ilona Maher took the 2020 Summer Olympics by storm in their own ways.

Purrier, with a fiery competitive nature, finished in 10th place in the women's 1,500 meters, while Maher, who created a massive following on TikTok during the Olympics, stiff-armed Team USA into a sixth place in rugby sevens.

The Montgomery native, Purrier, clinched a spot with on the women's national team after a record-setting 3 minutes, 58.3 seconds to win the U.S. Trials in late June. Purrier's time in the qualifier was the fastest in over 30 years.

Unable to have supporters at the Olympics due to COVID-19 protocols, Purrier's family and friends came out in waves to see the "hometown girl" at  Snow Shoe Lodge and Pub and Richford High School.

Maher and the U.S. rugby sevens won all three of their pool play games in Tokyo, before dropping the quarterfinals match to Great Britain. While balancing life as a world-class athlete, the Burlington native, amassed a following on TikTok that currently stands around 830,000.
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Friends and family supported the standout athlete, who excelled at three sports with Burlington High School, at the Elks Lodge.

6. Lake Monsters' Futures League title
For the second year in a row the Vermont Lake Monsters made the Free Press top sports stories of the year.

The top-seeded Lake Monsters won the Futures Collegiate Baseball League regular season and postseason crowns in their inaugural year in the league — a far cry from last year when the Oakland Athletics ended their affiliation with the franchise and high-level baseball at Centennial Field was put in serious doubt.

In the decisive third game of the FCBL championship series vs. the Pittsfield Suns, Patrick Harrington, the league's pitcher of the year, tossed five scoreless innings in the Lake Monsters' 3-2 win at Centennial.

The Lake Monsters produced a 30-6 record over the final 36 games to surge to the title.

7. Alleged racial and transphobic slurs used in H.S. sports

Alleged racial and transphobic slurs and sexual remarks toward players from opposing student sections were prevalent throughout the fall 2021 high school season.

An overly aggressive Sept. 18 match between Winooski and Enosburg boys soccer left Sean McMannon, superintendent of the former, to issue an online letter accusing Enosburg players and fans of directing racial slurs at his players. An Enosburg investigation followed and found no wrongdoing.

Racial and transphobic slurs were allegedly directed at Burlington volleyball players during a match at South Burlington on Oct. 6 leading an official to end the match after determining "significant harm" had been done. Days later Burlington captain Isara Masi said in a press conference, "The most tiring part is the fact that these instances continue to happen not only in Vermont sports, but in society as a whole. Everyone needs to be better, and everyone needs to treat each other with kindness and compassion."

Hartford girls soccer were forced to walk off the pitch just a day after the Burlington incident when players heard remarks from the Fair Haven student section that were allegedly sexual in nature.

Nearly three weeks later Lamoille girls soccer was subjected to "repeated harassment, sexualization and debasement," according to the News & Citizen at a playoff game against Missisquoi.

At the end of October it was reported by the Rutland Herald that racial slurs between players were used during the Mill River and Otter Valley football playoff game.

In a response to these allegations the VPA announced a new online reporting form to find potential data points of concern. Officials were also asked to participate in implicit bias training as early as the 2021-22 winter season.    

8. UVM soccer sweeps AE crowns
The University of Vermont soccer teams swept the America East Conference in 2021.

The Catamount women captured their first-ever conference title after dispatching No. 6 New Hampshire 1-0 on Montpelier native Cricket Basa's lone goal. The Catamounts capped a nine-game win streak with the conference championship in front of more than 2,000 spectators at Virtue Field.

The Catamount women also won the regular-season crown for the first time in 25 years.

The UVM men upset nationally ranked rival New Hampshire, 1-0, to unseat the reigning champs. Yves Borie broke the scoreless affair in the 68th minute and gave the team its first conference tourney crown since 2015.

For their efforts, Lydia Kessel (goalie) and Ella Bankert (midfielder) earned conference player of the year honors for their positions, while Kristi Huizenga and her assistants were named the coaching staff of the year for America East.

Nate Silveira also earned keeper of the year honors on the men's side.

Both UVM squads lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

9. Essex, Champlain Valley battle in snow
In the first-ever all-Chittenden County high school football title game, Essex edged out Champlain Valley in a snowy thriller.

The back-and-forth affair, accompanied by the picturesque backdrop of snowfall in Rutland, saw the Hornets up 21-19 at the end of a title matchup for the ages. Free Press all-state running back Oliver Orvis paced the Hornets with 26 carries, 138 yards and 1 TD rush in a performance that will be remembered in the hearts of Hornet fans for years to come.  

Both teams had strikingly different seasons: The Redhawks battled throughout the year to a 7-2 record heading into the matchup and averaged 28 points per game, while the Hornets (7-3) got off to a slow start in Marty Richards' first campaign as coach of his alma mater.

But after a brutal loss to Hartford in Week 6 the Hornets ripped off a 5-game winning streak that ended with a championship. That run included back-to-back winning trips to Rutland, the former to upset the No. 1 and previously unbeaten Ravens in the semifinals.

10. Middlebury field hockey dominates
After losing the 2020 season to COVID-19, Middlebury College field hockey returned to dominance in style.

A 22-0 final record — and fourth consecutive Division III national title — was the first perfect season in the conference since 2007. With the stellar performance the Tigers became the first team to ever win four titles in a row.
Top-ranked Middlebury topped No. 2 Johns Hopkins at Robin Sheppard Field in Hartford, Connecticut, by a final of 4-1. South Burlington native Joan Vera, a key defender for the Panthers, captured a third championship crown in the process.

Erin Nicholas was named as NESCAC player of the year and coach Katherine DeLorenzo won coach of the year honors for the fourth consecutive season.