MIDDLEBURY — The early season struggles continued on Tuesday for the Middlebury College men’s lacrosse team with a 14-7 loss to visiting St. Lawrence that dropped the Panthers to 1-4.
A combination of youth — only four starters return from the Panthers 2013 13-3 team — and a tough early season schedule — the 3-1 Saints were the third top-20 NCAA Division III team Middlebury has faced — has contributed to the slow start.
Coach Dave Campbell is confident his Panthers, who are 0-3 in NESCAC, will improve. At the same time, their next two league games are at 5-1 Bowdoin on Saturday and at home against 4-1 Amherst on March 29.
“We’ll keep getting better. Unfortunately, our schedule doesn’t lighten up at all,” Campbell said after Tuesday’s setback. “We’re going to have to get better in a hurry, and that’s what we’ll get back to doing.”
Early on, the Saints had an edge, thanks largely to their dominance in faceoffs. In the first half, they won 10 of 13.
Still, the Panthers hung tough until midway through the second period. Jon Broome and Stephen Seymour, from Broome with the Panthers a man up, scored for Middlebury in the first, which ended with SLU ahead, 4-2, thanks in part to a pair of man-up goals and two scores by Tommy Hovey.
Middlebury’s Jack Rautiola picked the upper right corner from the left side, with an assist from Taylor Pirie, to cut the lead to 4-3 early in the second, again with a man advantage.
One of Saint Conor Healy’s four goals quickly made it 5-3, and Luke DiLisio’s long shot deflected past Panther goalie Nate Gaudio (15 saves) at 11:11 to make it 6-3. Rautilio answered after taking a Jack Cleary feed at 10:28, but another Middlebury penalty led to another SLU man-up goal 10:04 and a 7-4 lead.
At 6:16 of the second, Cleary rifled a shot home while being fouled, and the Panthers had a golden chance to make it a one-goal game. Instead, the Saints again won the faceoff and possessed the ball for all but nine seconds of the one-minute infraction.
Three minutes later, the Panthers took two penalties on the same play, and the Saints cashed in with another man-up goal. They added another with 1:09 to go, and only a Gaudio save at the halftime horn kept the score at 9-5.
Campbell said the Panthers have been prone to mistakes at key junctures so far this season, as was the case in Tuesday’s second quarter.
“We can’t get out of our own way. We’ll make a play, and the next thing we’re in the box. We make a play, and the next thing you know we turn it over or lose a faceoff,” Campbell said. “That’s the way it’s going right now.”
The all-new Panther defense of junior Cal Williams, sophomore Harrison Goodkind and senior Darric White — who started at defensive midfield in 2013 — played better in the second half, and Gaudio, another veteran, also made 11 of his saves after the break.
But the Saints slowly pulled away. The Panthers couldn’t score in the third period, and in the fourth managed only goals by Chris Peterson, on a nice lefty shot from the slot, and Pirie, on a strong solo move from the right side.
DiLisio and Jeremy Vautour finished with two goals apiece for the Saints, and Vautour added a pair of assists. Saints goalie Nick Ford stopped eight shots, and freshman and Weybridge resident Steel White looked comfortable coming off the bench on defense.
The Saints finished with edges of 36-23 in ground balls and 23-6 in faceoffs, critical stats on Tuesday and problem areas for the Panthers this season, Campbell said.
“We need to be better in every area of the game,” Campbell said. “It starts with ground balls.”
On Saturday, the Panthers dropped to 0-3 in NESCAC play with an 11-5 loss at No. 10 Wesleyan. The Cardinals built a 10-1 lead before Middlebury finished strong. Panther Mike Ford scored the game’s opening goal, with a feed from Pirie, but then Wesleyan tallied 10 straight.
For Middlebury, Rautiola scored twice in the final 10:49, when Broome and Ford also scored. Jack DeFrino won nine of 12 faceoffs for Middlebury, while Gaudio made 19 saves, seven more than four Cardinal goalies combined. The Cardinals outshot the Panthers, 48-29.
Campbell said his young team has to keep working to learn to play together and to “handle adversity” during games with more poise.
“It’s a matter of having confidence in what we do and understanding what we’re trying to do out there,” Campbell said. “And doing it at game speed and being able to handle the ebbs and flows of a game.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.