MIDDLEBURY — Despite losing five starters, two on defense, and the top three scorers from the team that went 18-3 and reached the NCAA Division III semifinals in 2013, the Middlebury College women’s lacrosse team so far has not skipped a beat in 2014.
A 14-6 home win over Bowdoin on Friday and a 19-4 thumping of Rochester Institute of Technology in Florida on Monday pushed the Panthers’ record to 6-0. They are again ranked highly in the NCAA poll, No. 3 to be exact, heading into key showdown games later this week against two other top-10 teams, Franklin & Marshall and Amherst.
Those two wins also gave Middlebury coach Missy Foote a milestone: Tuesday’s victory was the 400th of her 34-year career leading the Panther program. Heading into Thursday’s game, Foote’s career record stands at 400-104-1. She is one of just four women’s lacrosse coaches with more than 400 wins in the history of the game.
Foote’s Middlebury teams have also won seven NESCAC and five NCAA titles. And according to Middlebury resident and junior midfielder Katie Ritter — who is fifth on the team in scoring, third in ground balls and second in caused turnovers — the team is getting steadily better in its quest to add to those totals.
“Each game I see us progressing a little more. We’re facing tougher and tougher opponents, too,” Ritter said. “Now we’re facing tougher teams, and we’re really stepping up to the challenge. We always have some things to work on, but I think we’re growing each game, and I’m really excited about the direction we’re headed.”
The defense has been solid all along, she said, and through six games has allowed only 34 goals, and now the offense is beginning to click, too.
“We struggled in the beginning just to get some good ball movement, but I think that is improving. We’re putting in more motion plays. Everybody is moving. Everybody is moving the ball. It’s not as stagnant,” Ritter said.
Coach Missy Foote said she will know more about where the Panthers stand after the games later this week, but she certainly liked what she had seen through the end of Friday’s Bowdoin game.
“I love them. We have a great mixture of upperclass leadership and players that sat on the bench and didn’t get a lot of playing time last year who are stepping up, and then this really versatile first-year class,” Foote said. “The seniors and juniors are doing a great job with their leadership and really making things happen, and then our underclassmen, including our first-years, are rising to whatever we ask of them.”
In Friday’s game, Bowdoin (3-3, 1-3 NESCAC) controlled the early going by winning draws and attacking the Panther zone aggressively. With 12:48 left in the first half, the Polar Bears led, 3-2, on goals by Lindsay Picard, Jordan Smith and Olivia Raisner, answered only by Panther freshman Mary O’Connell’s crease roll and a Ritter fast-break goal set up by sophomore attacker Alli Sciarretta.
But the Panthers slowly took charge, even if it didn’t show up on the scoreboard immediately. They had several great chances over the next 11 minutes — Bowdoin goalie Isabel Sippel (10 saves) denied sophomore middie Chrissy Ritter on a breakaway and from the slot, and she also hit a post, while Sippel also stoned senior middie Liza Herzog and sophomore attacker Bridget Instrum.
The Panthers finally tied the score at 1:16, when Herzog set up cutting sophomore middie Laurel Pascal, and took the lead soon afterward when Herzog scooped the draw and raced in. Bowdoin tied the game at 0:29 by winning the draw and converting on the break, but a Herzog free position goal with 5.4 seconds to go made it 5-4 at the break.
The Panthers then rattled off the first nine goals of the second half while holding the Polar Bears scoreless until the final 2:05, when they tacked on two meaningless goals.
The Panthers won 12 of 18 second-half ground balls after an even first half in that department and outshot Bowdoin after the break by 16-7 for a total edge of 27-17.
The goals came from O’Connell, on a feed from Herzog; Pascal, on a free position; O’Connell, cutting across the slot; two from Katie Ritter, one on a feed from Instrum; Herzog, running in off a draw; freshman Delaina Smith from Katie Ritter; and two solo Instrum moves.
Panther senior goalie Alyssa Palomba made five saves, including a key second-half stop on Picard to preserve the 8-4 advantage, and allowed four goals. Sophomore Madeleine Kinker made one late save.
Katie Ritter said the Panthers understood what they had to do to take control, although she acknowledged Foote also reminded them to work harder to win ground balls.
“We knew we need to get some stops on defense,” Ritter said. “And also we needed more movement on offense. They are very good on-ball defenders, so we knew needed to spread out, move the ball.”
Foote did not sound too concerned about the slow start. The Panthers also had scored the final six goals in their previous game, a 10-4 win over Wesleyan.
“This is just their modus operandum every game. We just start off just trying to figure out what they’re doing, and figure out what we’re doing, what defense they’ve got, what they’re using against us, and we just slowly work our way up,” Foote said. “They’re young and they have to sort it out.”
On Tuesday in Florida the Panthers started faster in pulling the plug on RIT, 19-4. Middlebury scored six times in the first 7:05 to take charge, with Pascal and Herzog notching two apiece, Katie Ritter picking up a goal and an assist, and Sciarretta adding a goal. The Panthers led at the half, 13-4, and blanked RIT after the break.
Pascal paced the Panthers with four goals and an assist. Instrum recorded three goals and an assist; Sciarretta, two goals and two assists; Herzog, two goals and an assist; O’Connell, two goals; Katie Ritter, a goal and two assists; Fowler, a goal and five ground balls; and Chrissy Ritter, Smith, Allie Forbush and Cat Lincoln, a goal apiece. Palomba allowed four goals and made two saves, and Kinker played 18:21 and stopped two shots.
The Panthers visit fourth-ranked Franklin & Marshall (6-1) on Thursday; F&M’s only loss came on Sunday, 9-8 at No. 1 Salisbury. On Saturday, the Panthers head to No. 7 Amherst (5-0) for a key NESCAC showdown.
They will be optimistic heading into those games, Katie Ritter said.
“I’m confident,” Ritter said. “We’re a very young team, but the underclassmen are really stepping up and really bringing their A game, and I think we have great upperclassman leadership, so I am excited going forward.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE JUNIOR Katie Ritter charges up the field during the Panthers’ 14-6 win over Bowdoin Friday afternoon on Kohn Field.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell