It might be hard to find gems in a year that can charitably be described as lousy, but there are a few gold nuggets in the COVID-19 pan. Many Montpelier businesses found ways to survive a precipitous drop in customers, most of us showed respect for one another by wearing masks, and students continued to learn despite a mountain of obstacles.
And even among the fits and starts of pandemic-related interruptions, the Montpelier High School boys athletic teams managed not one but two state championships and have their eyes on a possible third.
Those victories, in soccer and basketball, are especially sweet for a senior class, boys and girls, that has endured the unusual and unfair completion of a major life moment — graduation.
For the senior athletes, led by Leo Riby-Williams, it was the virus itself that provided relief and lent focus to the effort. Soccer coach Eric Bagley and basketball coach Nick Foster stressed the need to remain COVID-free, and that sort of created an insular bubble, Riby-Williams said.
The motivation was already there in basketball, where the Solons last year lost the state title game by one point. That was the day last month’s championship was born.
“Coming into this season Coach Foster made sure we were dedicated to the team and that we took the virus seriously,” Riby-Williams said. “Focus-wise he just told us that he knows we were a championship team. We practiced almost every day, even weekends, and he made sure we knew we were a championship team.”
Riby-Williams, soft-spoken but confident, was the leader of both squads. He scored 18 points in the title game victory over North Country and finished with 1,006 in a career slowed by a shortened season, thanks to the pandemic. He also scored the winning goal in the 2–1 soccer title win over Milton (his sophomore brother, Ronnie, assisted the other goal, scored by Brooks Duprey).
Riby-Williams, along with his best friends for life Quinn Mills and Brecken Shea, are products of the Montpelier youth sports system, having met in sixth grade. That lifelong connection is what built their recent athletic success, he said.
“I think our group of kids has raised the tempo and expectations for Montpelier sports,” he said.
And sports, in turn, offered solace in a chaotic, divided world, he said.
“Sports is a good place to relax,” Riby-Williams said. “It’s a stress-free environment not to think about all the other things in life. It’s my chill zone, especially this senior year with all that’s going on it’s a good place to just be myself.”
The three friends, described by many as inseparable, spent much of the COVID summer training together, taking 11-mile bike rides that culminated in pickup hoop games while preparing for their final school year.
Mills said Riby-Williams is a fun-loving and grounded star whose will to win makes his teammates better.
“We became a trio in middle school and we are going to be tight for a lifetime,” Mills said. “We can’t not be due to the bond we’ve created. As a leader, Leo has always been the best player but he’s not full of himself. Often the best player is really cocky but he’s such an easy guy that you don’t think of him as the dominant player.”
That bond was evident in the soccer team’s run. The Solons hadn’t won a playoff game for four years before winning three in a row this season to capture the school’s first soccer crown since 1996. It was Mills’ crossing pass to Riby-Williams with about a minute to play that sealed the win.
Coach Bagley said the seniors, and juniors, this year raised the program’s expectations and that Riby-Williams stepped up by encouraging teammates to shake off mistakes and get back to having fun.
“The biggest thing with Leo, and this speaks to the person he is, is that he always really enjoyed being on the field,” Bagley said. “He always had a smile on his face and he came up huge when it mattered most.”
Outside the Lines
Born and raised in central Vermont, Riby-Williams said his parents, Emmanuel and Mary, always told the boys and their older sister Noel that they were “lucky” to live in Vermont, where racial incidents might be rare but where injustice is still a reality. Regardless of personal experience thousands of white and BIPOC Americans have rallied in the wake of recent incidents of racial injustice. For the Riby-Williams family it’s not an option to remain silent.
Noel Riby-Williams and her cousin, Joelyn Mensah, led the movement to raise the Black Lives Matter flag outside MHS, the first school in the country to do so in 2018.
Noel, who was born in the West African country of Ghana and was a toddler when the family moved to Vermont, also led the successful effort to have the Black Lives Matter mural painted on State Street in front of the capitol. Leo said Noel and the support of his teammates have helped him find his voice in the struggle for racial justice. He also credited school officials for supporting students in any worthy effort.
After the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis last May, Leo Riby-Williams said his teammates, mostly white, asked him how he was feeling, but beyond that they wanted to show solidarity with their friend.
The soccer and basketball teams decided to follow the lead of Major League Soccer and wear shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” during warmups for every game in a “we’ve got your back” statement.
“Us wearing Black Lives Matter shirts was very important to me, and they wanted to make sure that they were with me and that we stood for things like that,” he said. “It was a team effort that we might as well show our support for this organization that we all believe in.”
Riby-Williams said as a young African-American man he can’t help but have a role in fighting for equal justice, and even if his voice is soft his words are thoughtful. He expects to carry on the need to speak out when he graduates. At the moment he plans to attend prep school in New England next year but he has also applied to the University of Vermont and the University of New Haven, he said.
“I am responsible just to say what happens in the world, to tell people that these things are happening,” he said. “Even if they don’t happen here it’s still a thing, and that it should be stopped, and that even in a small community there are things we can do to make things better.”
Before that, however, Mills is trying to coax his friend to play lacrosse this spring in pursuit of yet a third state crown.
This article was corrected April 8 to reflect that Brooks Duprey scored the first goal in the state championship soccer game.