MIDDLEBURY — Defense, goaltending and senior Scarlett Kirk’s strike with 17 seconds to go gave the host Middlebury College women’s soccer team a 1-0 win over Johns Hopkins in Sunday’s NCAA Division III Sectional final — and it sent the Panthers where the program has never been before, to the tournament’s final four.
The 17-1-3 Panthers will head to San Antonio for a Dec. 6 date with undefeated Trinity of Texas (25-0-1). Capital will meet the winner of a late Sunday game between William Smith and Ithaca in the other semifinal. The championship game is set for Dec. 7.
The Panthers earned the right to meet Johns Hopkins in Sunday’s Sectional final by thumping Misericordia, 5-1 on Saturday. Kirk scored three goals in that game, after which Johns Hopkins defeated Williams in double overtime, 2-1.
But Kirk’s Saturday hat trick paled in significance to her single score as time wound down in Sunday’s bitterly cold, windswept final. Seven times the Panthers have earned NCAA berths, and four times they have reached Sectional play, including when Kirk was a sophomore.
Kirk’s Sunday goal, set up by classmate Julie Favorito, gave Middlebury a trip to Texas.
PANTHER SENIOR SCARLETT Kirk advances the ball while fighting off Misericordia defender Jessica Buffa during Saturday’s NCAA sectional. Kirk scored a hat trick in Middlebury’s 5-1 win. Independent photo/Trent Campbell.
“It means a lot to Middlebury,” Kirk said. “We’ve always come into postseason competitive. We always lose really close games. And so it’s so nice we were able to pull it out.”
But if the Panthers hadn’t weathered a first-half storm, college officials also wouldn’t be booking that flight. With wind gusting up to 24 mph at their backs, the visiting Blue Jays bottled up the Panthers in their own end and outshot them, 9-0.
Middlebury Coach Peter Kim credited his team — and especially the defense of Charlotte native Lindsay Kingston and Sophie Kligler in the middle, Mollie Parizeau and Moria Sloan on the flanks — with holding up under the pressure. The Blue Jay forwards and middies could crowd the Panthers’ short-passing game because it was impossible for them to hit the ball long.
“When the wind is that strong, and it’s blowing right in your face, it’s comes down to mental toughness. It’s not soccer ability, it’s can you last against the other team and the wind. So I’m so proud of them for going through halftime without allowing a goal,” Kim said. “And the other team, full credit to them, they were good defensively.”
Johns Hopkins also earned six of its seven corner kicks in the half, and one was dangerous: In the 36th minute, defender Adrienne Johnson volleyed a ball just wide of the right post.
The Blue Jays’ best chance of the half came in the 20th minute, when Hannah Kronick and Kelly Baker worked a give-and-go starting on the left side of the box. But Kronick, inside the penalty stripe, couldn’t get a good foot on the return pass and her bid dribbled wide right.
Kingston also blocked a shot, Sloan shielded a Jay from a dangerous serve from the right side, and goalie Elizabeth Foody (four saves) snared a drive from Baker in the 30th minute.
At the other end, the Panther had chances: Hope Lundberg did well to deny through balls from Jamie Soroka to Kirk and from Kirk to Adrianna Gildner, and Johnson broke up a cross from Soroka to Kirk.
The Panthers came out strong in the second half with the wind at their backs. In the sixth minute Favorito found right mid Carter Talgo cutting to the right post, but Leddy denied her and controlled the rebound. Five minutes later, Soroka broke up a clear on the left side, but fired wide.
A minute later, the Panthers earned a corner kick. Blue Jay defender Kylie Fuller blocked a Parizeau shot, and center mid Hannah Robinson’s rebound bid hit the post.
Much of the rest of the half turned into a midfield battle, and Johns Hopkins held its own as the wind died down somewhat. Foody denied Baker, and Sidney Teng’s 20-yard bid sailed just high with 13 minutes to go.
The Panthers then took charge again, and several of of their 10 shots and of Leddy’s six saves came as time wound down. But only one was dangerous, and it went in. The Blue Jays tried to clear on the right flank, and Favorito, the center mid and NESCAC player of the year, stuck her foot in and sent a 20-yard diagonal ball to Kirk at the top of the box.
Kirk turned and sealed a defender on her back as she received the ball, freeing her left foot for a shot. She ripped it low and hard inside the right post, triggering a roar from her teammates and the couple hundred freezing Middlebury fans.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Kirk said. “I could barely speak or run at that point. I was just so excited it went in the goal.”
Kirk opened the scoring in Saturday’s win, converting a Robinson feed from Robinson at 38:48 of the first half. Parizeau made it 2-0 before the break, drilling a header inside the near post on a corner kick from Ali Olmberg.
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE JUNIOR Molly Parizeau celebrates after scoring a goal against Misericordia Saturday. Independent photo./Trent Campbell.
The Panthers then added with three goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Kirk scored from Soroka and Favorito, and Sarah Noble headed in a Talgo corner kick as the team’s starting flank midfielders teamed up. The Panthers earned a 21-5 shots advantage on Misericordia (19-3-2), the team that upset them in a regional final a year ago.
Afterward, the Panthers spoke about how this Middlebury team has avoided losses like that this year. It helps, Kim said, that the defense and goaltending has been rock-solid, the midfielders have moved the ball beautifully, and Kirk (16 goals this year, 47 in her career) is rising to the occasion. But more than that, he said, the team has earned it.
“It comes down to all the clichés that anyone ever says about sports. It’s hard work and taking one game at a time, and it’s easier said than done,” Kim said. “We didn’t even pick our head up to look at Texas (the Final Four) as a possibility. We just said we were going to win this game.”
And, Kirk said, like most successful teams the Panthers have chemistry.
“Everyone on this team is such close friends. We’re definitely playing for each other, and I think that makes a big difference,” Kirk said. “We don’t care who’s the one who scores the goals, who’s the one who makes the big plays, as long the team is working as hard as it can and everyone is playing their part.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]