MIDDLEBURY — The early returns look promising for the Middlebury College women’s hockey team, which swept visiting NESCAC foe Trinity this past weekend, 3-2 in overtime on Friday and 7-0 on Saturday to improve its record to 4-0.
Tougher challenges lie in wait for a team that will play as many as seven freshmen on a regular basis as it seeks its eighth NESCAC title and sixth NCAA Division III crown, but Coach Bill Mandigo said after Saturday’s win the Panthers are pointed in the right direction.
Mandigo was pleased that his young team played a complete 60 minutes on Saturday after surrendering a 2-0 lead the evening before against the 1-2-1 Bantams, typically a competitive NESCAC squad that was 15-7-3 in 2012.
“I thought Trinity for large periods of the game last night outplayed us,” he said. “But … (today) I thought (the Panthers) played real well and real hard and moved the puck and took it to them. I was really impressed with the way our kids came to play.”
Especially after replacing five graduated seniors with a half-dozen freshmen (another, defender Pam Schulman, will join the lineup this weekend after a postseason run with the field hockey team), and putting them in Middlebury’s atypical two-forward, three-back system, Mandigo said the results have been positive.
“The first games are a work in progress,” he said. “We play six freshmen, and they play. And there’s a lot of newness out there. They’re still figuring out what’s going on, and our system is not the simplest.”
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SOPHOMORE Micaela Thibault knocks Trinity's Brooke Heron off the puck during Saturday's game at The Chip. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
The tougher challenges begin immediately, however. Saturday and Sunday bring the annual Panther-Cardinal Classic to Kenyon Arena. It will again feature Elmira and Amherst as well as Middlebury and Plattsburgh. The Panthers will not face their NESCAC rival Amherst, but meet Elmira — the team that defeated them in the 2012 NCAA final — on Saturday at 4 p.m. and Plattsburgh — the team they defeated in the 2012 NCAA semifinal round — on Sunday at 4 p.m.
Plattsburgh (8-0) is ranked No. 1 in Division III, Middlebury is No. 2, and Elmira (5-1-1) is No. 5. Amherst (3-0-1) also received votes.
Mandigo said his newcomers have been learning quickly while facing the Panther veterans during competitive practices, but Elmira and Plattsburgh will test his team and its first-year players.
“We’ll probably dress seven freshmen. That’s seven of 18. That’s a lot. And if you dress them, they’re going to play,” he said. “So I think it will be an interesting weekend for them.”
In Saturday’s win, veterans took care of the goals. Senior forward Sara Ugalde and junior forward Katie Sullivan scored two goals each, while sophomore forward Anna Van Kula, senior forward Madeline Joyce and junior forward McKenzie Martin each chipped in a goal and an assist.
But four freshmen contributed assists, forwards Allie Aiello, Jane Freda and Kelly Sherman and defender Carly Watson, a Montpelier native, while freshmen defenders Victoria Laven and Jess Brownschidle acquitted themselves well.
Even with senior mainstay defender Julia Wardwell out until this weekend, those three freshmen joined senior Jennifer Krakower and juniors Laura McConney and Kate Moreau in holding the Bantams to 14 shots on junior goalie Madeline Marsh.
Mandigo was pleased with the defense.
“I thought they did a great job. They worked hard and they moved the puck,” he said.
Martin got the scoring started on Saturday at 11:28 of the first, when she netted a rebound of junior forward Emily Fluke’s shot at the left post, with Joyce getting the second assist. At 12:59, Sullivan batted Krakower’s feed out of mid-air, and it trickled through Bantam starting goalie Alexa Pujol, who allowed all seven goals and stopped 28 shots. Kristen Maxwell eventually relieved her and made six saves.
The Panthers added a third goal in the period with 2:03 left, when junior forward Hannah Bielawski stole the puck behind the net, skated out front and shot, and Joyce scored on the rebound.
The forecheck paid off again 3:01 into the second period, when Ugalde finished a Sullivan rebound after Sherman broke up a clear. Katie Sullivan made it 5-0 after two periods on a power play at 18:40 by burying a Moreau rebound, with sophomore forward Katie Mandigo getting the second assist.
In the third, Ugalde scored from the right-wing circle after taking a Fluke pass from the corner, with Aiello also assisting the power-play goal. Van Kula scored from the high slot 34 seconds later, with Bielawski and Mandigo assisting.
On Friday, Fluke scored 1:18 into overtime to give Middlebury the 3-2 win. She snapped home a shot from the left-wing faceoff dot after taking a pass from sophomore Carly Schader.
Middlebury took the lead at 11:21 of the first when Martin scored from Sullivan, and Sullivan made it 2-0 with a power-play goal at 9:58 of the second, netting her own rebound after picking up an initial rebound of a Moreau shot.
But Trinity scored twice in the next 1:15: Emily Riccio tipped in Emma Tani’s shot from the right point, and Bantams took advantage of a Panther turnover when Cheeky Herr skated in and scored with a wrister to make it 2-2 at 11:13.
The Panthers outshot Trinity, and junior goalie Annabelle Jones made 20 saves, while Maxwell made 27 for Trinity.
Before Saturday’s game, Mandigo said Friday’s effort was discussed.
“We talked about last night,” he said. “We let them back in. That’s not a typical Middlebury thing to do.”
The message was received, he said, and is part of the larger message he is delivering to the Panthers.
“Even more so than last year, I really don’t think there are any stars in that room,” Mandigo said. “It’s like a bunch of lunchpail kids in there. They better work hard, and they better compete, because that’s how you’re going to win. They’ve got to play the system, they’ve got to move their feet, and they’ve got to move the puck. And if they can do that, then we’ve got a good chance to be OK.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.