MIDDLEBURY — On Saturday the Middlebury College women’s lacrosse team faced arguably its toughest test to date, a home game after a day of travel back from Colorado against Bowdoin, which reached the 2011 NCAA Division III final four.
The Polar Bears entered the contest at just 4-2, but were also getting back their best player from injury, center midfielder Katie Stewart.
The Panthers, who last week were ranked No. 7 in NCAA Division III, still won by six, 16-10, to improve to 8-0 overall, 5-0 in NESCAC play.
Senior tri-captain Liz Garry, who scored twice, acknowledged it wasn’t the Panthers’ best effort, but also noted they outscored the Polar Bears by 6-2 in the final 26 minutes after Bowdoin cut the lead to 10-8 early in the second half.
Critically, she said, the Panther defenders — Hannah Deoul, Neile Weeks, Lucy Jackson and Heather Marrison —stopped allowing Stewart (four goals) and Elizabeth Clegg (three goals) to attack the goal individually: Of Bowdoin’s 10 goals, only two were assisted.
“I think they realized they were getting beaten just a little too quickly and their slides were just a step or two behind,” Garry said. “They did a really good job of adapting and seeing what Bowdoin was looking for.”
Offensively, the Panthers again received the offensive balance and ball movement that has allowed them to outscore their foes by 115-49. Eight Panthers have tallied at least seven goals, and they have assisted 42 percent of their scores.
Vs. Bowdoin, the Panthers assisted seven of their 16 goals and five Panthers scored at least twice: junior middie Margaret Souther (four goals, two assists), sophomore middie Liza Herzog (four goals), junior middie Michaela Colbert (three goals, one assist), freshman Middlebury Union High School graduate Katie Ritter (two goals, one assist), and Garry. Junior attacker Ellen Halle chipped in three assists.
Garry said that balance makes the Panthers hard to stop.
“It’s really hard to write a scouting report on eight people who can score,” Garry said. “That’s just really going to benefit us greatly as the season rolls on.”
Bowdoin scored first after winning the opening draw. Draw controls, thanks to Stewart and an injury to Panther senior center Steph Gill, was the only stat that ended up favoring the Polar Bears.
The Panthers then ran off the next five goals to take a 5-1 lead at 17:40. But Gill went down with an apparently serious knee injury after the fourth goal, and Coach Missy Foote is braced to play the rest of the spring without her key senior.
Foote is confident the Panthers can adapt, however.
“What I love about our team is our depth, which you saw today,” Foote said. “When Steph got hurt we had several options.”
Still, Bowdoin began to control the draw, and the Panthers understandably may have been affected by seeing Gill down for several minutes and then helped off the field. Despite some good work by Panther goalie Lily Nguyen (eight saves), Bowdoin cut the lead to 10-8 at 26:27 of the second half on a goal by Carolyn Gorajek and then a Stewart bullet assisted by Gorajek.
But the Panthers had the answers. Souther set up Herzog, curling from behind at 25:28 to make it 11-8, and a minute later Colbert assisted another Herzog score after Souther picked up a ground ball. Nguyen then stopped Clegg, and Panther freshman Catherine Fowler went coast-to-coast at 22:40 to make it 13-8.
Bowdoin came no closer than four goals the rest of the way as the Panther defense closed down the attacking lanes.
Garry said she believed the Panthers picked each other up when the Polar Bears made their run.
“We haven’t had really a close game like that,” she said. “So I think feeling that fire under our feet kind of got everyone realizing that we weren’t just going to stroll through.”
Garry also believes the Panthers have a great deal of potential.
“I have to say all-around I think this is the best Middlebury lacrosse team I’ve been a part of,” Garry said. “I have confidence in all 26 members of this team. It’s been great. A lot of people have been getting a lot of playing time, and it speaks volumes about our bench ... The quality of play each individual brings is above and beyond anything I’ve been a part of, which is really, really exciting.”
Foote, too, likes the 2012 edition of the Panthers.
“We have a lot of players who can score, and we’ve got some speed back this year. It’s been a while since we’ve had some speed,” she said. “We’re hard to stop.”
But like most coaches, Foote is not ready to make any predictions, especially with NESCAC foes Trinity and Colby also still unbeaten.
“With Steph out right now we have to move some pieces, so we’ll see what we can do,” Foote said. “We still have our biggest games coming up.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com