Tiger girls best Rice; MMU next in D-I lacrosse semifinals

MIDDLEBURY — The No. 5 Middlebury Union High School girls’ lacrosse team put the clamps on visiting No. 5 Rice during a Saturday quarterfinal, winning by 8-3 to advance to a Division I semifinal on Tuesday vs. No. 1 Mount Mansfield.  That result followed an 18-2 home first-round win on Wednesday over No. 13 Spaulding.
The 14-3 Tigers will meet MMU (15-2) on Tuesday at 4 p.m. in what could prove to be a defensive battle. The Cougars dealt MUHS two of its three defeats this season, 5-3 in Middlebury on May 10 and 11-5 on the road on May 27, and MMU has only twice allowed opponents to score in double figures this spring.
But the Tigers have reason to believe the third meeting will be different. They did not play well the first time around, and the second game came after a road trip to Rutland the day before, and senior defensive midfielder Claire Armstrong missed it with an injury.
The Tigers have been playing better. In their first matchup with South Burlington on May 5, for example, they won 8-5. In the May 24 rematch, the margin was 16-4. They defeated Burlington at home in April, 12-5, and in May won on the road, 16-6.
And MUHS edged Rice on May 19 at home, 9-8, before shutting the Green Knights down on Saturday.
Coach Kelley Higgins said she sees improvement.
“I still don’t think we’ve peaked, but we’re definitely arcing in the right direction,” Higgins said.
Something that has helped, said senior midfielder and co-captain Emma Best, is the Tigers are more aggressive when the other team is trying to move the ball from defense to offense. The Tigers, notably Best, forced the Knight defenders and midfielders into many mistakes.
“We have a new thing where we jump the ball, so they have a harder time working the ball down the field,” Best said. “A lot of turnovers come that way.”
Rice came into the game having scored 14 or more goals 11 times, and finished scoring fewer than 10 goals only four times. The Tigers are the only team to hold them to fewer than nine.
Higgins credited her low defenders, senior Annina Hare and Jesslyn Hounchell and Keagan Dunbar, plus goalie Raven Payne, while Best, Armstrong and defensive middie Riley Fenster also excelled.
“Since the beginning of the season I’ve been excited about our defense, and Raven has put in a lot of time outside of practice, and it’s really paying off,” Higgins said.
Best also praised the defense, singling out Dunbar, who guarded Rice’s Kristina Bellomo, who had tallied seven times in a first-round win but did not score vs. MUHS.
“She was all over her. Keagan did her job,” Best said.
Rice hung around early on Saturday. After middie Satchel McLaughlin bolted in from the left sideline at 21:37 and set up Best out front at 20:37, Rice answered with two goals. Bellomo set up Sophie Laughran out front, and at 16:34 Katherine Hesslink scored on a similar play.
But the Tigers tightened up and went on a 4-0 run. Fenster finished off a behind-the-net pass from Andi Boe, senior attacker Emma Donahue netted a pass threaded to her by middie Isabel Rosenberg, attacker Mikayla Robinson bolted across from the left and finished inside the left post, and Rosenberg tossed a free position shot into the upper left corner.
Payne, who had all of her saves in the fist half, made some tough stops in that surge and picked off a couple passes. At 1:08, Jillian Gibbs made it 6-3 with a feed from Bellomo, but McLaughlin halted any Rice momentum by converting a free position at 0:18.
The early second half consisted of the Tigers being a little careless with the ball, and then winning it right back. Finally, a turnover led to a Rosenberg solo move for a score at 15:37. Soon the Tigers were content to take time off the clock. When they lost the ball, they just knocked it free and got it back. Two Rice goalies combined for four saves.
Higgins said MUHS would work on ball control before Tuesday in order to maximize scoring chances vs. MMU, but on the plus side noted six Tigers scored.
“That was my goal for the season. I wanted us to be a team where they didn’t know who was going to score because everybody can shoot,” she said.
In Wednesday’s game, Rosenberg, McLaughlin and Boe each scored four times, Best had three goals and two assists, and Robinson added a goal and two assists. Payne stopped five shots, while goalie Lindsay LaPan made 14 saves for the 2-14 Tide.
Now comes the test vs. MMU.
“I think we can do it,” Best said. “It’s going to be heart. Whoever wants it more that day is going to make it happen.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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