Panthers beat Jeffs; extend winning streak to 7 games

MIDDLEBURY — When the Middlebury College women’s lacrosse team on Saturday scored four unanswered goals in the final 14:50 vs. visiting Amherst, it did more than give the Panthers a 9-5 win over the visiting Jeffs.
That surge also gave them their seventh straight win and capped an eight-day spring-break stretch in which Middlebury, ranked No. 4 in NCAA Division III last week, went 4-0 and defeated three other ranked teams: Then No. 3 Bowdoin on the road March 22, 14-8; No. 9 Washington & Lee on the road on March 26, also by 14-8; and then No. 12 Amherst on Saturday.
They also pelted Roanoke on March 24, 19-2, and according to senior co-captain, leading point-getter and Middlebury resident Katie Ritter, those eight days gave the Panthers a lift.
“This spring break, going 4-0, is a real boost for us,” said Ritter, who held Jeff leading scorer Rachel Passarelli to one goal on defense and chipped in a goal and two assists at the other end. “We’re playing some really good teams down the stretch, but I think we’re really hitting our stride, and I’m really excited to face those teams.”
Three NESCAC teams the Panthers (7-1 overall, 4-1 NESCAC) have yet to face were ranked in the top 10 in last week’s poll: Trinity at No. 2, Colby at No. 4 and Hamilton at No. 7. Like Middlebury, all have 4-1 league marks.
Longtime Coach Missy Foote also believes the Panthers bonded and picked up their play in the past four games.
“We really came together over spring break,” Foote said. “I think that gave our team confidence.”
But she also knows tough tests await, starting this Saturday at Colby, which defeated Middlebury twice in 2014. Asked about the Panthers’ outlook, Foote answered, “Time will tell.”
Certainly, the Panthers have made a habit of answering challenges. At Bowdoin, they outscored the Polar Bears, 6-3, in the second half. Vs. Washington & Lee, the hosts cut a big Middlebury lead to 9-8, but the Panthers responded with the final five goals.
And on Saturday, they snapped the late tie with a 4-0 run. Ritter said the Panthers finally won a couple draws (she led the team with four draw controls), and made the most of their offensive possessions. 
“Amherst slows the ball on offense a lot, so it made us hard to have the ball and have good possession. So I think settling and getting the ball on the draw was huge so we had a chance to score,” Ritter said.
Foote in that stretch credited Ritter and attacker Alli Sciarretta, who scored all three of her goals in the 4-0 run. Ritter scored the fourth and assisted the tiebreaker.
“Sciarretta was on fire, and Kate Ritter was on fire,” Foote said. “She really is the quarterback or the point guard of our team, and does it at both ends.”
Neither team set the scoreboard on fire in the first half. With the officials evenhandedly letting both defenses play physically as well as carefully, offense was scarce.
With bone-chilling temperatures and wind also challenging skilled play, Panther junior middie Chrissy Ritter, Katie’s younger sister, broke the scoring ice at 20:08, curling from the left side and beating Jeff goalie Christy Forrest (six saves) to the near post.
After a Jeff turnover, the Panthers added to the lead quickly. Attacker Bridget Instrum cut from the left side, took a behind-the-net feed from attacker Mary O’Connell and scored at 18:57. Pascal made it 3-0 at 13:44 by looping in from the left and finding the near side.
Amherst called for time, and the Jeffs showed life. Passarelli finally shook loose from Ritter and went in from the top of the fan to score at 12:19. Shortly afterward, Jeff Mia Haughton hit the crossbar, and Panther starting goalie and Cornwall resident Katie Mandigo (two saves) stopped Julia Crerend’s point-blank bid. It remained 3-1 at the half.
Crerend cut it to 3-2 to open the second half, taking a fed from Haughton. At the other end, Chrissy Ritter converted a free-position and, at 18:55, Pascal quick-sticked in a clever Katie Ritter feed to make it 5-2.
But the Jeffs responded with three goals in 4:05, two from Crerend and one from Claire Cagnassola. Crerend’s at 14:50, a curl from the right side, prompted Foote to call time and put junior Madeleine Kinker in goal. Kinker made three saves down the stretch.
More importantly, the Panthers started getting the ball. At 13:22 Katie Ritter found Sciarretta 12 feet out from goal, and she turned and fired to make it 6-5. Amherst won the next draw, but Katie Ritter came away with a turnover. At 12:21 a Panther pass into the fan went astray, but Sciarretta scooped it up and ripped another shot home.
At 10:31, Ritter went in alone to make it 8-5. Amherst got the ball back, and Kinker made a big stop on Cagnassola. At 3:52, Pascal fed Sciarretta in transition to make it 9-5. The Panthers won the draw and possessed for most of the rest of the game.
At Washington & Lee two days before Katie Ritter led the way with four goals, including the 100th of her career, and two assists. Pascal scored three goals, including her 100th, and Sciarretta and Instrum added three apiece. Kinker (four saves, seven goals allowed) and Mandigo, (three stops, one goal against) shared time in goal.
Looking forward, Katie Ritter said a key factor could be that the Panthers are enjoying themselves.
“These past few weeks we’ve really focused on doing what we know we can do well, playing our own game, and just staying loose and just having fun,” Ritter said. “I think right now we’re playing loose and the vibes are good. It’s been really fun this whole month.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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