Sports Column by Andy Kirkaldy: Panthers, locals excel at exciting sport with sticks

It’s funny, field hockey has a reputation as a sport that is constantly being interrupted by whistles.
I thought of that on Sunday afternoon while I sat in front of my computer and watched the Middlebury College team battle Bowdoin for the NCAA Division III title and win, 1-0.  
Many more were probably glued to televisions watching a sport in which every play begins and ends with a whistle, and the athletes have to gather for a committee meeting before they decide what to do next. Yes, that would be football.
Please don’t get me wrong, I like football, too, but I do have to laugh about the bad rap that field hockey gets in comparison, often from folks who enjoy football. Too many whistles? Really?
The knock about too many stoppages and slow play in field hockey especially rings false now that college and some high school field hockey teams play on turf, a surface that has speeded up the game and rewarded skill by removing bad bounces, and that some rules have been changed to create better flow, such as allowing players to carry the ball on restarts after fouls.
Referees have also been encouraged to delay whistles if the offense has an advantage, the “play-on” rule that is familiar to soccer fans.
The result is a fast, exciting product that showcases the players’ speed, athleticism, stamina and ability to make decisions on the fly.
For example, the only goal in the Panther-Polar Bear game on Sunday came on an end-to-end Middlebury counterattack in which the Panthers covered the length of the field and scored in 15 to 18 seconds: a defender’s pass from the back to a player who carried the ball under pressure down the right side and then crossed to the middle, and then a defender who couldn’t quite control the ball, and an attacker who pounced and scored, just like that.
And then later there was a little bit of luck, something Coach Katharine DeLorenzo’s program has lacked over the years in the NCAA tournament. This was her Middlebury teams’ fifth appearance in a title game, and the bounces never seemed to go their way. And what was probably her best group lost a few years back in a regional after arguably its second-best player, a left back, broke her hand.
The left back is critical to a field hockey team — all players play right-handed, and opponents’ right wings are typically dangerous attackers who are naturally in position to cross given even an inch of space.
This year, fate finally smiled on the Panthers, who earned their good fortune by playing outstanding defense despite, again, losing their left back — Mount Anthony Union High School grad Lily Taub — to injury late in the season. The Panthers allowed just one goal in four tournament games even though the NCAA (don’t get me started) stuck them, the No. 3 team in the nation, into a draw that required them to defeat, in order, the Nos. 5, 6, 2 and 1 ranked teams to win the title.
But even with all the Panthers’ talent and determination, in the title game they were facing a foe with an equal amount of heart and ability. Bowdoin had its chances.
This time, finally, deservedly, on the Polar Bears’ best bid, Middlebury caught a break: Late in the second half, Bowdoin’s Liz Znamierowski trailed the Polar Bears first wave in transition, and a rebound bounced right to her. Znamierowski’s shot for a tying goal pinged squarely off the right post. The Panthers swept the ball out of harm’s way and then controlled the final few minutes.
Those of you reading this may or may not be convinced that going out to Middlebury’s Kohn Field next fall to watch a game is worth your time. Here are some kids who don’t need convincing: There are 10 freshmen or sophomores from our three local field hockey programs I can name just off the of my head who play in college:
•  From Otter Valley Emily Lowell, Kylee Bissette, Marissa Colburn and Jenna Elliott play for Castleton University, and Brittany Bushey suits up for Endicott College.
•  From Middlebury, Paige Viens takes the field for Colby-Sawyer and Kiera Kirkaldy for Simmons.
•  From Mount Abraham, Madi Wood swings her stick for Endicott, Sam Reiss plays for Bates, and Gabby Ryan puts on shin guard with the rest of the Castleton crew. Eagle junior Ariana Perlee also plays for Colby-Sawyer.
Based on what I saw this fall, more are on the way to join them.  
By the way, Znamierowski? She’s from Mount Mansfield Union. And a kid from Essex, Kathleen Young, played for Harvard and made the all-Ivy rookie team. The 802 represents in field hockey. 

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