'Wow, did that just happen?' An oral history of Mount Anthony football's historic 1994 state championship season
Twenty-five years ago this month, the Mount Anthony football team reached the top of the Division I mountain, outscoring opponents 401-80 and beating Middlebury in the state championship, 28-0.
The 1994 Patriots came at the end of a decade-long run. Starting in 1984, Dan Laughlin led the Patriots to a 62-30 record, never having a losing season.
In those 10 years, Mount Anthony reached the semifinals three times and the finals twice.
In November 1993, Laughlin, who was the general manager at the Green Mountain Race Track in Pownal, left the area after the track was closed and sold.
Laughlin's assistants were Tom Otero and Dave Polen, along with Butch Hayes, Ken Laumann and George Pratt. Otero coached the running backs and linebackers, while Polen led the linemen.
Here's the story of that season, told by people who were there.
Richie Joly, senior defensive back: I spent a lot of time with Laughlin as a quarterback sophomore and junior year. When Dan was leaving it was a shock to all of us, but when Dave took over, having the same coaching staff helped moving forward. OT [Otero] and Polen already had relationships with the players.
Tom Otero, assistant coach: We were always together, Dave, Dan and I. We used to go to all these different clinics with guys like [former Giants coach] Bill Parcells and [current Lions defensive coordinator] Paul Pasqualoni. We learned a lot about football and we were basically disciples of Dan's.
In May 1994, Polen was tabbed to lead the Patriots.
Otero: I did apply for the job, but I coached other sports too, I think I was coaching baseball and football, as a head coach they wanted someone to just do one. Dave was credible and definitely could do the job.
After finishing 5-4 in 1993, there were rumblings coming into training camp that Mount Anthony could be one of the top teams in the state in 1994.
Chad Gordon, junior lineman: We had some high expectations, a lot of returning starters. I was on the JV as a sophomore in '93 and there weren't a lot of open spots on the line, I think we only graduated two or three guys. There was a lot of competition for those open spots. We were predicted to be one of the better teams.
Otero: We followed a lot of what Dan had done, I mean, we tweaked it some, I had ideas, Dave had ideas. But the reason it was successful is that we had a lot of pretty good athletes that had had playing experience the year before, varsity experience. You had key personnel in key positions. One of the main guys was Ryan Lacasse.
Lacasse was a senior receiver for the Patriots who caught 23 passes for 640 yards and seven touchdowns. Defensively, Lacasse was second on the team with five takeaways, including four interceptions and was fifth in tackles. On special teams, he kicked extra points and field goals and also returned punts and kickoffs.
For his efforts on the season, Lacasse was the winner of the Gatorade Player of the Year award.
Otero: He had speed, ability, and he was much more mature then the other guys. He was able to go and do things like that, making the big plays.
Andy Todd was a junior quarterback who could make plays with his arm and his legs. He threw for 1,172 yards and 13 touchdowns that season.
Otero: Another very good athlete, he could move in the pocket, get away, rush the ball, and when he did throw it, our receivers were pretty aggressive.
Joly: He ended up at quarterback because I started on defense. So once he was put in, I helped Andy at quarterback, but he was definitely the right choice. After our scrimmage, I talked to Polen and I said, he's much more dynamic. I liked defense better than offense anyway, give a hit as opposed to taking them.
Jason Parks was the leading rusher, eventually rushing for 1,124 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Ken Mailhot, junior running back: I had to sit behind Parks, it was hard to get on the field (laughs). If Jason needed a break, I could go in. A lot of us were like that. I didn't even start in 1994, I probably would have started for many of the other teams in Vermont. But it was a strong group, [the seniors] had been playing together a long time.
Otero: [Jason] was a big guy, strong, he had good seasons rushing every year.
But before all that, the first game of the season came on Sept. 2, a home game against Essex, a team that had reached the finals the year before. The anticipation was high and Mount Anthony rose to the challenge, ripping off 28 points in the first 15 minutes en route to a 62-7 pasting of the Hornets.
The 62 points scored remains the school record, tied in 2019 in a game against North Country.
Mailhot: That may have been the big moment, right there, that maybe we have a chance to be state champions. I remember being in the locker room for the team meeting before we went out and everybody was so focused and geared up. We wanted to make a statement.
Gordon: I remember the game was over by halftime. I got time in the third quarter and we were still scoring with the second-team offense. Even I got taken out and some of the sophomores went in to play. It was really an exclamation point, saying we're sending a message. Essex was a powerhouse in Vermont football for years and to come out and put it to them...
Otero: It was like we could do no wrong in that game, it didn't matter what play we called, what defense, it was just that the players knew what to do and did it. (laughs) I remember thinking this was easy.
After chalking wins up at BFA St. Albans (35-6) and at Spinelli Field against MSJ (44-21), they blanked Rutland 42-0 on the road to move to 4-0 on the season. As good as the offense was, the defense was leading the way. All 35 points the defense allowed came in the fourth quarter with second and third-string players in the game against starters.
Joly: I remember Rutland had this big running back who talked a lot of smack. We made it our goal to make sure he didn't get anything. [According to Banner reports, that running back, Frank Vaccaro, ended the day with zero yards on six carries].
That set up a matchup against the defending Division I champions in Middlebury on Homecoming at Mount Anthony.
Mount Anthony came in 4-0, while Middlebury was 3-1.
Mailhot: That was one of the better games we had.
Otero: There are certain teams you have a history with, we had some really tough and close games. You had to dot your I's and cross your T's and they had a specific offense you had to prepare for. You had to coach differently that week because each player had certain responsibilities that they had to do if we were going to be successful.
Middlebury took the lead early, the first team to do that. But Todd ran in from seven yards out to tie it and then MAU took the lead when Lacasse scored on a reverse.
In the third quarter, Parks scored on a short run and Lacasse added a TD catch to put the game away.
After a rout of Burlington, the Patriots faced the toughest game on the schedule, a non-league contest against Guilford, Conn.
Otero: Their athletic director was the former AD at Springfield (VT), so we matched up with them somehow someway. In past years, we had matched up with some Connecticut teams. It was a 3-hour drive, but it wasn't any worse then traveling up to BFA. Guilford is right on the Long Island Sound, it was a big crowd.
The Patriots trailed early, but Josh Stemp scored midway through the second quarter to tie the game at halftime.
Joly: That game really brought us together. It was really the first time all season that we had to face adversity and I remember being in the locker room and all of us saying, we have to win this game.
In the second half, Todd and Lacasse hooked up for a pair of scores, with one a 94-yarder, a school-record that remains unbroken. Todd set a then-record of 271 yards passing as well.
Joly: We didn't pay attention to the stats, we started the third quarter and we wanted to take a team's will away.
After a win against Hartford, MAU traveled over the mountain to face Brattleboro for the Elwell Trophy. The game meant little in terms of seeding or standings — MAU had already clinched the top seed, while Brattleboro was locked into the fourth spot, so the teams would meet in the semifinal.
Mount Anthony won the game 37-0, but in the process, Lacasse was knocked out of the game with a knee injury.
Mailhot: He twisted a knee on a punt return, I do remember that.
In the semifinal, Brattleboro traveled to Bennington looking to pull the upset. The Patriots were without Lacasse, who was out due to the injury.
Mailhot: I remember running onto the field and [the Brattleboro players] were hyped to play us. It was a big game and they were screaming when we ran through the banner. They wanted to be the spoiler.
An off-field distraction also worked against the Patriots. In the week leading up to the semifinal, Otero was not allowed to coach after an incident with a player getting cleared despite having a staph infection.
So instead of being in Bennington, Otero was in Middlebury, scouting the game between the Tigers and Hornets.
Otero: I was meticulous with taking notes on everything, we had a whole scouting chart. They ran a very monotonous offense, but it was very effective. I was on the phone all the time [getting updates]. I was on with the radio guys, getting updates about what was happening in Bennington. Our rhythm was disrupted, I was in the booth during the games and I relayed information to Dave for the sideline. So to take me out and put a new person up there was a change.
Brattleboro took the early lead in the semifinal before Dave Duncan tied the game with a touchdown catch. In the second half, Parks scored to finish off a 17-play drive to take the lead. With 1:15 left, Mailhot put the finishing touches on the win with a nine-yard touchdown run.
When Middlebury beat Essex 37-7 in the other semifinal, it was yet another showdown between the Tigers and the Patriots. Lacasse's status was still unknown.
Gordon: Before the final, early in the week, [reporters] were giving predictions that without Lacasse they were going to beat us. We had beaten Middlebury in the regular season and one player wasn't going to change that. I think it galvanized us as a team, and I remember guys saying, 'We're more than one player.'
Mailhot: I think he decided to play on the bus ride to Rutland (laughs). He had such a laid-back attitude, yeah, I think I'll play. There was no doubt who the best player was on the field, if he had his cleats on, he's going to go.
The first quarter of the state championship game went scoreless, with neither team grabbing a foothold. Shortly into the second quarter, Chris Dickinson converted on a fourth-and-short to keep a drive alive and on the next play, Mailhot scored from 29 yards away to give MAU the lead.
Mailhot: I remember the play we ran was Red 57, an off-tackle handoff right through the seven-hole [between tackle and tight end]. I had to go into the game because Jason had an issue with his helmet, where one of the pieces kept coming loose and he'd have to come out and get it fixed. That must have been the reason I went in.
The play was originally designed for Parks and Dickinson, but Mailhot did it in practice with Dickinson actually running the ball.
Mailhot: We came out of the huddle and he lined up in his normal spot and I was in Jason's spot, and I thought he would move me and we'd switch, but he never did.
In a photo from the Burlington Free Press the day after the championship game, photographer Albert Marro has a shot of Mailhot carrying the ball and a Middlebury defender getting his hand in to try and punch the ball away. In the photo, the ball is tilted away from Mailhot.
Mailhot: It was that close and when I got into the end zone, I just remember thinking, wow, did that just happen?
It didn't take very long for Mount Anthony to double the lead. Two minutes later, Middlebury quarterback Matt Smith was intercepted by Lacasse, who took it to the house 62 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0.
Joly: We didn't know how long Ryan would play, but once the momentum was in our hands, it was like, here we go, the train isn't stopping.
Mount Anthony got the ball to start the second half, and on the first play after a penalty, Todd put a 50-50 ball up for grabs. Lacasse and Middlebury's Ken Moss each went for the ball, but Lacasse outflanked Moss and took off for a 69-yard touchdown to give Mount Anthony a 21-0 lead.
After a Middlebury 3-and-out, MAU put the game away on a Dickinson 1-yard touchdown.
With the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, Polen subbed in the backups.
Joly: I got to play quarterback in the fourth quarter. I ran a play, Right Waggle Right, because I wanted at some point to have a completed pass. But I knew I was going to be in trouble for throwing [up 28-0].
The defense, as it had been all season, was the catalyst. They only allowed Middlebury to rush for 125 yards and forced four turnovers. Led by Dickinson on the defensive line, it was just another tremendous performance.
Mailhot: I remember that they were trying to stop Chris and they said, 'We can't block that guy.'
Gordon: I think our point was at halftime, they aren't scoring. We're going to finish this and they aren't scoring, and that held through.
When the final whistle blew, Mount Anthony were the Division I champions for the first time since 1975 and the second time in school history.
Mailhot: I felt good about the day, almost relief as much as joy.
With the second team in the game at the end, Gordon was on the field when the clock showed all zeros.
Gordon: It almost felt anticlimactic, you didn't know how to feel. We were celebrating and then walking off the field, you think, oh I thought this would feel different. But I think it's because we were such a dominant force, offense, defense and special teams.
Joly: A lot of guys didn't play again, so it was the last time with everyone together. It's what I missed so much after football ended. Twenty-five years later, my biggest reward I still have contact with my teammates and coaches, which is one of the cooler things. It's the little things that led us to the success of senior year back in 1994.
Where are they now:
Chad Gordon is a math teacher at Mount Anthony and just finished his third year as head coach for the Patriots.
Richie Joly is a special education teacher at Jamestown High School in the Buffalo, N.Y. area and has been a varsity football coach for the past 14 seasons, winning a New York state Class AA championship in 2014.
Tom Otero retired from coaching girls lacrosse after the 2014 season, but coached for another four at Southern Vermont College. He was formerly a health and physical education teacher at Mount Anthony before retiring. He now lives in Florida with his wife and grandson.
Ken Mailhot is the president of the Mount Anthony Youth Athletic Association football program, the Bennington Minutemen. Mailhot's sons are going through the youth league now and look to be a part of MAU football in the future.
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