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Andy Kirkaldy: Results in final games do not define seasons

After a day at the Middlebury College sports complex like Saturday it’s easy to ask what went wrong.
The day dawned with such promise. Both the Panther women’s hockey and men’s basketball teams were hosting foes in NCAA Division III quarterfinals they had defeated in their most recent meetings.
But in the afternoon, Norwich women’s hockey rallied from two goals down in regulation and won in double overtime, 5-4.
In the evening, Williams withstood a late Panther rally to win, 79-75, in men’s hoop.
There were a lot of long faces in the gym, rink and surrounding corridors.  
Still, so much went right for those teams this winter.
First, Montpelier native and standout senior defender Carly Watson returned from a serious knee injury to finish the season with six goals and 17 assists for the hockey team.
But the Panthers did not exactly set the world on fire for much of the season. On Jan. 27 and 28, Hamilton swept them, 2-0 and 2-1; they dropped to 9-5-2.
After the Panthers won the NESCAC title to improve to 19-6-2 and earn the NCAA berth, leading scorer Jess Young insisted the Panthers never doubted themselves and knew they would turn things around.
But Coach Mandigo the week before said he could barely sleep after the Hamilton weekend because he was so worried. But he woke up at 3 a.m. one night with an idea for a lineup change, including putting Young and second leading scorer Maddie Winslow on different lines. The team then scored four goals or more nine times in its final 12 games after scoring four goals three times in its first 16 games.
Turning around a season like that is good stuff, whether, as Young said, they had it all the way, or whether Mandigo’s tinkering paid off.
Meanwhile, almost 1,200 fans paid their way into see the Panthers’ NCAA game after 800 attended the NESCAC final. (Not all of them were friends of senior Allie Aiello, although sometimes it seemed that way.) That’s a testament not just to their success, but also to their determination and selfless play.
Coach Jeff Brown’s men’s basketball team has a similar tale, with even more adversity. The team’s second-leading scorer transferred out of the program over the holidays, and a valuable reserve suffered a season-ending injury early on.
Brown’s Panthers also had a low point from which they bounced back: An 89-65 loss at Williams on Jan. 22. Senior standout Matt St. Amour said Brown “lit us up” afterward, and the Panthers began to work just a little bit harder and pay just a little bit more attention to detail in their practices.
The result? Fourteen straight wins, including a blowout over Williams in the NESCAC final; a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament; and four huge crowds in Pepin Gymnasium, three of them sellouts of 1,200.
And deservedly so. The Panthers played fast, exciting, unselfish basketball with maximum effort. Who could ask for anything more, regardless of what happened in the final seconds of the final game?
Plus they’re good guys. As my esteemed fellow columnist Karl Lindholm has documented, for example, St. Amour also works hard in the community and wrote a senior thesis on “Green Dot Bystander Intervention: A Reduction of Sexual Violence Rates.”
Karl quoted Noreen Pecsok, co-director of Middlebury’s Green Dot Program, about Matt: “He is a smart, thoughtful guy who has embraced the challenge of making our campus a safer place.”
Another example: I briefly interacted this past weekend with forward Eric McCord in a corridor at halftime (he didn’t know who I was), and if there is a more polite young man I’ve never met one.
Anyway, I just hope the incredible accomplishments of these two teams don’t get lost just because they didn’t win the last games of the season, and in some cases their careers.
St. Amour addressed that larger question on Saturday, about the meaning of the journey: “I’m just so thankful to be part of this program, to be part of this community. And it’s been an amazing year, and I love all those guys in that locker room. It’s definitely unbelievable. Not the way we wanted it to end, but it’s definitely been an amazing ride and something I will cherish forever.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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