Middlebury women’s soccer is off to NESCAC final four

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College women’s soccer team probably has flown under the radar this fall. Unlike the Panther field hockey or men’s soccer squads, the Panthers have not cracked the top 25 in NCAA Division III coaches’ polls, while the football team deservedly earned headlines by winning its first five games.
But Coach Peter Kim’s women’s team is the one that earned the highest seed for the NESCAC playoffs, which began this past Saturday: The Panthers were seeded third (field hockey got a No. 4 nod, and the Panther men’s soccer team were seeded fifth), and made good on that ranking by knocking off visiting No. 6 Bowdoin, 2-1, to improve to 13-3.
The Panthers will next head to the NESCAC final four this weekend at Williams, (15-0-1) the defending NCAA and NESCAC champion. Middlebury will take on No. 2 Amherst (13-2-1) at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, a rematch of a game won by the Panthers, 1-0, in Middlebury. Williams faces No. 4 Trinity (11-3-2) at 11 a.m., and the winners meet at noon on Sunday. The Panthers last week lost to Williams, 1-0, and on Oct. 15 won at Trinity, 2-1.
Kim said he believes the Panthers are performing well — they created chances in the loss to Williams and allowed only one shot on goal in the win over Bowdoin, a successful penalty kick. He wants to see more of the same this weekend, and hopefully beyond in the NCAA tournament.
“We just need to stay healthy, keep playing our style, and keep playing together,” Kim said. “As the saying goes, the hay is in the barn. Now we just have to perform.”
Against Bowdoin (9-6-1), senior midfielder Katherine Hobbs gave Middlebury the lead in the fifth minute. Hobbs carried at goal, touched the ball away from a defender trying to cut her off, and fired the ball into the left side of the net.
Most of the half proved to be a defensive battle at midfield, with each team working hard to disrupt the other’s buildup. Bowdoin had a chance on a corner kick from the right side in the 24th minute, but middie Emily Pawlak bodied the ball wide of the near post.
Panther senior striker Adrianna Gildner had the best first-half chance to extend the lead. Middie Sara DiCenso sent her into the right side of the box with some space to maneuver, but Gildner’s 18-yard shot sailed wide of the near post.
The Panthers dictated play more consistently in the second half. After a Panther edge of 5-4 in shots at goal and two corner kicks apiece in the first half, the Panthers earned advantages of 7-3 in shots and 2-0 in corners in the final 45 minutes.
Kim said it took time for the Panthers to settle into their possession game against the Polar Bears.
“We knew that Bowdoin was going to be a disruptive team. They were the second-best defensive team in the conference,” Kim said. “So we had to be prepared to win the physical battles first. So when we started doing that and started moving the ball like we like to, then I think it was more our game.”
Kim added the Panthers also took advantage of Bowdoin’s second-half decision to take a player out of midfield to reinforce the front line.
“It left them a little exposed. They needed a goal, and I think that was just the cue we needed,” he said. “We trained against both their systems, so we knew how to respond.”
Early on after the break, Bowdoin keeper Rachel Stout saved a header from Panther center back Alissa Huntington, who had stepped into the attack. In the seventh minute, a 25-yard Gildner drive from the left side sailed just over the crossbar.
Then on the first Bowdoin rush of the half, Polar Bear Morgen Gallagher drew a foul as she made a strong move inside the top of the Panther box. With 36:37 on the clock, Nikki Wilson ripped the penalty kick into the left side of the net, giving Panther freshman goalie Ursula Alwang no chance.
The Panthers simply kept pressing and regained the lead 1:31 later, courtesy of senior middie Amy Martin. DiCenso played the ball down the middle toward Martin. A defender got a piece of the ball, but not enough to stop it from deflecting into Martin’s path as she broke into the Bowdoin box. Stout came out to cut down the angle, but as she neared the penalty stripe Martin knocked the ball past her into the left side of net.
 Middlebury kept pressing, with Hobbes, Gildner, Martin and middie Amanda Hotvedt creating the best chances. With 18 minutes to go, Hobbs broke into the box, but Stout smothered her low left-footed shot. Shortly afterward, Martin set up Gildner from 12 yards out, but her bullet found Stout.
Bowdoin’s best chance came with about 15 minutes left. Alwang came out to break up a run by Polar Bear Kate Rusk-Kosa, but the ball bounced away. Bowdoin’s Talia Missan was there to pick it up and try to shoot on the vacated goal, but Huntington blocked her bid.
That effort was part of a solid day for the Panther back line of Huntington, Amanda Haik, Janie DeVito and Alex Barber against a quick Bowdoin team that tried to break them down with long serves into the box. The Panthers have allowed only 0.74 goals per game this fall.
“One chance is all it takes, but they held together,” Kim said.
The coach also praised his midfielders and forwards for defending the Polar Bears, particularly for re-defended after losing the ball.
“This a transition conference,” Kim said. “So you have to organize defensively as soon as you lose the ball or they’re going to pick you apart.”
And he cited his seniors for setting the tone.
“I think it was a big performance by the entire team, and key goals at the right time from your senior leadership,” Kim said. “Hobbes and Adrianna and Amy, they just rose to the next level.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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