Panthers rebound after opening defeat

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College women’s lacrosse team made it four wins in eight days on Saturday, when they returned from a successful weeklong road trip and defeated NESCAC rival Connecticut College, 14-6.
All four of those wins, including Tuesday’s huge 10-8 victory over previously undefeated Gettysburg, then ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division III, followed the Panthers’ stunning, 11-9, opening home setback to Bates in which they lost a big second-half lead.
Senior attacker Dana Heritage, who led Middlebury with four goals and an assist on Saturday, said the Panthers took heart from beating Gettysburg after their disappointing opener.
“The Gettysburg win was just an unbelievable win for us, got us back on track and gave us some confidence,” Heritage said.
But she said the team hasn’t forgotten the lessons of the Bates game.
“I think it was sort of an eye-opener. To deal with some adversity at the start of the season was maybe a good thing for us,” Heritage said. “I think we’ve been at the bottom, and we know what it feels like, and we don’t want to go back there. It’s just made us work even harder.”
Coach Missy Foote said the Panthers had to work hard both on Friday, when they defeated Buffalo State, 11-10 at RPI, and on Saturday. High-scoring junior Chase Delano suffered a concussion against Buffalo and did not play on Saturday, and the Panthers have already lost injured starting midfielder Lucy Jackson for the season. Compounding their problems, an illness ran through the team last week.
Foote said many athletes played out of position on Tuesday and Friday, and others, including defender Carrie Sparkes, did not feel 100 percent on Saturday.
Those issues contributed to what she called a lackluster first half, when the Panthers lost their steam after taking a 4-0 lead. The Camels scored three straight goals to get back in the game, and Middlebury relied heavily on sophomore goalie Lily Nguyen, who excelled in stopping 15 of 20 shots before sitting in the final few minutes.
“It’s the end of a long week for us, with some injuries and some illnesses, so we’re happy with the outcome,” Foote said. “I wasn’t pleased with the way we played in the first half. But in the second half, we definitely picked it up.”
The Panthers did take an 8-4 halftime lead, and they looked efficient in their settled offense, converting on 14 of 18 high-percentage shots on Camel goalie Ashleigh Kowtoniuk. But they really clicked in all phases in the first 15:13 of the second half, when they out-scored the Camels, 6-1, and also got their transition game working.
Heritage agreed the Panthers picked up the pace after the break.
“The first half, I think we were a little bit tired, but we sort of woke up in the second half and showed what we have. I was happy with that,” she said.
 The Panthers took their early 4-0 lead on two goals by Heritage and one each by midfielder Sally Ryan and attacker Margaret Souther, who finished with three goals apiece.
But the Panthers’ defense remains a work in progress, Foote said, and the Camels got back in the game. All three starting defenders of a year ago graduated, and while Foote is confident in her starters this year — seniors Kasey Rischman and Catherine Gotwald joined Sparkes in the back on Saturday — she said a new zone defense the team is using will take a little time to perfect for the backs and defensive midfielders.
“We’ve got a lot of new players back there on defense, so it’s going to take a while, and our zone’s complicated,” Foote said. “It was great against Gettysburg when we had everyone full-tilt.”
The Panther attack continued to be productive, however, and Panthers extended their lead despite the even territory. Ryan, Heritage, Stephanie Gill and Souther scored in the final 11:32 to put the Panthers up by four after 30 minutes.
“We’ve got a good settled offense,” Foote said.
After hafltime, the Panthers put the game away. Sophomore Liz Garry finished a behind-the-net feed from freshman Michaela Colbert at 27:31, Heritage fed Ryan at 26:14, and Ryan set up Souther at 25:56 as the Panthers won three straight draws and got their transition game working.
At 24:45 Camel Abby Hill broke the run with a solo effort, but the Panthers came right back when Heritage scored on the break to make it 12-5 after a strong run by Ryan. Colbert tacked on free-position goals at 17:25 and 14:47 to make it 14-5, and the Camels did not score again until the final minute.
On Friday, the Panthers scored late to edge Buffalo State (3-2), 11-10. Middlebury led, 8-5, at the half. After Buffalo tied the game at 9-9, Heritage and Lindsay Winstead scored to make it 11-9 at 2:27, and Middlebury held on. Souther finished with three goals, while Heritage, Winstead and Garry added two apiece and Nguyen made five saves.
In all, Foote is optimistic because she believes the team has senior leadership, young talent and a strong work ethic.
“It’s a great group, willing to do whatever it takes,” she said.

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