Panthers sweep regionals, on to Final Four

MIDDLEBURY — After a dominant performance on home turf in this past weekend’s NCAA Division III Regional, the 19-1 Middlebury College field hockey team is going back to the NCAA Final Four for the first time since 2011.
The Panthers, ranked No. 2 in the most recent coaches’ poll, dismissed No. 5 Ursinus, 5-1, on Sunday in the regional final, a day after rolling over the University of New England, 7-0.
At the final four in Lexington, Va., on Saturday, the Panthers will face the program that defeated them in the 2011 final, No. 4 The College of New Jersey (20-1). No. 3 Bowdoin (18-2) and No. 1 Salisbury (19-1) will meet in the other NCAA semifinal in a rematch of the 2013 final, won by Bowdoin. The final will be played on Sunday with game times to be announced early this week.
Senior middie Cat Fowler, whose one goal and two assists on Saturday and two assists on Sunday made her the Panthers’ career assist leader, recalled the disappointing loss at home in a 2013 regional final and pointed to the Panthers’ determination to write a different ending in 2014.
“We set these goals right in the beginning of the summer and at the end of the season last year when we lost on this field in the same situation,” Fowler said. “We know what we’re headed towards, and we’re really excited.”
Junior forward Bridget Instrum, whose hat trick gave Middlebury a 3-0 lead on Sunday, described the feeling of getting to the final four and also talked about the sense the Panthers had in the preseason.
“It’s so surreal,” Instrum said. “Ever since preseason I knew this team was special, and that we were going to go really far. And I really think we can come away with the whole thing.”
The Panthers also talked about team balance. After this weekend, seven Panthers have scored at least eight goals, topped by Fowler’s 20, followed by Instrum and Pam Schulman with 11 each, and three starting middies have double digits in assists: Alyssa DiMaio (11), and Fowler and Anna Kenyon with 10 each.
Instrum cited the confidence of a team that is riding a 15-game winning streak and avenged its only loss, to Bowdoin, in the NESCAC final.
“I’ve never played on a team with so much talent and depth,” Instrum said. “I think we’re unstoppable if we put our minds to it.”
The Panthers also have defense and goaltending, and early on vs. Ursinus (17-4) those strengths were tested. Middlebury goalie Emily Knapp (five saves) denied Danielle Stong and Stephanie Cooper as the Bears pressed. Middie Lauren Berestecky and defenders Shannon Hutteman, Lily Taub and Jillian Green also made plays as Middlebury blunted the surge.
Then play started flowing the other way, with DiMaio helping to spark the Panthers’ possession game. The tide started turning when the Panthers earned their first penalty corner about eight minutes in, and Bear goalie Danielle DeSpirito (seven saves) did well to deny Instrum on the Panthers’ second corner.
But Instrum evened accounts at 16:27 on another corner, one-timing home a DiMaio feed from the left side to make it 1-0. At 10:51, Instrum scored the goal of the game and maybe the season. Fowler rocketed a cross from the right side. Instrum stopped the ball dead with a reverse stick and then spun 360 degrees around DeSpirito to tuck the ball inside the near post.
At 30:08 of the second half, Instrum raced in from the left side, beat two defenders and scored again. At 25:46, Olivia Jurkowitz found Schulman cutting into the circle from the left, and Schulman swept the ball inside the right post.
At 14:53, Green finished a bang-bang play by netting a Fowler feed on a corner. A minute later, Stong tucked home a rebound to end Knapp’s shutout bid. Knapp made three saves down the stretch, the best of which came when she flashed her right pad to stop Megan Keenan. Middlebury earned edges of 15-7 in shots and 16-5 in corners.
PANTHER SENIOR CATHERINE Fowler controls a bouncing ball during Saturday’s NCAA regional semifinal. Fowler had a goal and two assists in the game and became Middlebury College’s all-time career assist leader. Indepenent photo/Trent Campbell
On Saturday, Middlebury and UNE (17-7) engaged in an early midfield duel, but the Panthers took charge after scoring on their first shot. That goal came from Green on a corner when she deflected home a Schulman shot at 26:09.
About three minutes later, Fowler banged in Jurkowitz’s reverse-stick cross from the left side, and at 20:21 Schulman netted her own rebound to make it 3-0.
Fowler then set up two Jurkowitz goals before halftime to break the assist record: Jurkowitz redirected a Fowler drive, and later knocked home a Fowler cross.
In the second half, Green added another penalty corner strike, and Schulman again rapped home her own rebound.
Middlebury held advantages of 13-3 in shots and 8-3 in penalty corners. Knapp (18-1) made three saves, while UNE’s Holly Smith was credited with six stops.
After Sunday’s game, Coach Katharine DeLorenzo talked about this year’s Panthers, who are trying to win what would her first title at Middlebury and the school’s first in field hockey since 1998.
DeLorenzo said the game vs. Ursinus showed the Panthers at their best, playing a “pure team game.”
“That ball was pinballing all over the field,” she said. “It took us a while to get going, but we made the other team run, and we pulled them apart.”
DeLorenzo also described her team as determined, fearless and “very together.” And, yes, she agreed 2014 might be the year for the Panthers to break through after losing three NCAA finals in the past 11 years.
“I feel like every year could be the year,” DeLorenzo said. “A win like this today makes me feel all the more so that this could be the team.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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