Essex athletes kick-off winter collegiate seasons

Vika Simons playing in goal for St. Michael's

With the winter seasons freshly underway across the collegiate athletics landscape, a few members of the Essex community are getting to the stat sheet early on.

Vika Simons has already collected a slew of honors as a member of the Saint Michael’s College women’s ice hockey program while Eli DiGrande, Olivia Miller-Johnson, Mikayla Butkus, and Olivia Duncan have represented Essex on their respective teams.

A strong start to the 2019-20 season has St. Mike’s senior goaltender Vika Simons on pace to crack a handful of program records in just her second year as a Purple Knight.

The former Essex High School netminder, from Essex Junction, has started all 10 games for SMC through Saturday’s (Nov. 23) tilt at league foe Saint Anselm College. Simons is currently bolstering a 3.42 goals against average and a .923 save percentage with 382 total saves this year. Her 2 wins thus far give her 6 for her short Purple Knight career--being just one shy from tying for seventh on the team’s all-time record chart.

Simons has recorded at least 40 saves in 6 games while turning in four-straight performances of 43 stops. On Nov. 23, she racked up a career-high 59 saves to place herself in a tie for sixth on the St. Michael’s single-game record list. Simons allowed just one goal in each of the Purple Knights’ wins so far--those both being against New England Women’s Hockey Association (NEWHA) opponents (Post University on Oct. 18 and Long Island University on Nov. 2).

The senior keeper’s performance has been highly recognized as she reeled in her fourth NEWHA Honor Roll accolade on Nov. 19.

When asked about how she feels this season compared to last year, Simons said, “I think I'm better. I spent some of the summer with my high school hockey coach, Rich Celia from Essex, and he managed to get my head on straight a little bit more."

Simons also commented on her chance to be playing so close to home.

"It's great because I was in Minnesota for two years and my parents could never made it to a game, but they're able to make it to games here. And when I'm talking with friends from high school and they say, 'We'll be at the game this weekend,' that's just really cool."

Simons is one shutout away from matching the program’s all-time record (3), and she’s currently in position to rank second and third in St. Mike’s history for career and season save percentage, respectively.

"Vika's play has been really good,” said SMC head coach Chris Donovan. “She's kept us in some games, she's excited to be in net, and we're glad she's in there."

Simons was a four-year member of the Essex High varsity girls squad--graduating in 2016 after winning three-straight Vermont State Championships (2014-16). She also spent a season as part of both the Hornets’ track and field and girls tennis teams. Simons then went to the University of Minnesota Deluth and played for its club hockey team during her first two years as a college student before transferring to SMC last fall.

Additional Nuggets

Mikayla Butkus (Southern Maine University Women’s Ice Hockey, Sr.)

Mikayla Butkus, despite being a defensive player for the Southern Maine ice hockey team, has made a solid impact on the Huskies’ offense in the early going. She’s tallied 4 assists in 6 games--that being just one shy of her total from last season.

The 2016 Rice Memorial High School graduate, from Essex Junction, has started in 5 of SMU’s 6 games thus far and has posted an assist in each of the Huskies’ two wins. While Southern Maine has been outscored 13-11 so far this year, Butkus is maintaining a 0 plus/minus rating.

Olivia Miller-Johnson (Nazareth College Women’s Ice Hockey, Fr.)

Olivia Miller-Johnson started her collegiate career this fall as a freshman on the Nazareth College women’s ice hockey team and quickly picked up a league accolade. The former Essex High Hornet has played in all 9 of the Golden Flyers’ games thus far--posting a goal and 6 assists. The freshman forward registered her first collegiate score on Nov. 15 in a 7-0 win at Wilkes University.

Miller-Johnson was named the United Collegiate Hockey Conference Rookie of the Week for the period ending Nov. 17 after she tallied her goal and 2 assists at Wilkes before notching another pair of helpers against King’s College.

Olivia Duncan (Endicott College Women’s Basketball, So.)

Olivia Duncan is in the early stages of her sophomore year as an Endicott College Gull. She has averaged 23.3 minutes per game in the onset of the season with the Essex Junction native notching 6 points in 31 minutes during the Gulls’ season-opening win against Bridgewater State University on Nov. 13. Duncan made her first collegiate start on Saturday (Nov. 23)--dropping a career-high 8 points in 32 minutes to help EC edge Westfield State University 77-72.

Eli DiGrande (Saint Michael’s College Men’s Basketball, Sr.)

Eli DiGrande is having a well-rounded start to his senior campaign for the Saint Michael’s College men’s basketball squad. The 6-foot-7-inch forward has started in four of the Purple Knights’ seven games and is averaging 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 block per game.

DiGrande has reached double figures in the points column in all but one game including a career-high performance of 21 at Saint Anselm on Nov. 13. The 2016 Essex High graduate was named to the Northeast 10 Honor Roll for the week ending Nov. 17 after averaging 17.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks through three games.

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