Panther field hockey picking up the pace; offense emerges in three victories

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College field hockey team on Tuesday picked up its third win in seven days, 3-0 over visiting Rensselaer in which the 7-2 Panthers held the Engineers without a shot on goal.
That result followed a 6-1 home victory on Saturday over visiting NESCAC foe Colby and a 6-2 decision on Sept. 27 over visiting Skidmore. The 15 goals in three games followed a stretch in which the Panthers, now ranked No. 6 in NCAA Division III, scored just 12 times in five outings.
Scoring balance is an obvious factor in the surge: In nine games seven Panthers have at least three goals, led by Molly Freeman’s six and Annie Leonard’s five, and 10 have at least two.
Coach Katharine DeLorenzo added several more reasons why things are clicking heading into this coming Saturday’s game at Tufts, also 7-2 overall but in first place in NESCAC at 6-0 to the second-place Panthers’ 4-1.
One is the Panthers have adopted a re-defending style designed to allow them to use their quickness and ball control to create transition offense.
“Our press is working. We’re not spending a lot of energy chasing the ball in their backfield. We’re winning the ball at about the 50-yard line, and it’s allowing us enough room to counterattack,” DeLorenzo said.
Secondly, the team is playing a new system, with three forwards and two deep defenders, and two lines of midfielders, with two middies stationed behind the front line and three in front of the back line. DeLorenzo said a year ago the Panthers at times struggled to move the ball out of the back, and this season, as the players become more familiar with the formation, their transition game has become more effective.
One goal on Tuesday was scored by forward Grace Jennings directly from a long clear from defender Lauren Schweppe, a midfielder moved to defense whose ability to hit long is helping make the system work.
“When people are pressing us, people are looking behind them. They’re not looking at the ball,” DeLorenzo said, adding, “All of the defensive players have to be offensive players. Schweppe is the cog in that. She pushes them to spread the field and play offense immediately because she outlets so well.”
Finally, DeLorenzo believes the team — which still includes eight members of the 2015 NCAA championship squad, Schweppe, Leonard, Jennings, Freeman, starting midfielders Audrey Quirk and Carson Peacock, defender Caroline Knapp and forward Amanda Bozorgi  — is beginning to gel because of their talent and field hockey IQ.
“We have just past the midway point of the regular season, and the difference between the first group we put on the field and their ability to play hockey and this group right now, their ideas are much more developed than five weeks ago, just way, way beyond,” DeLorenzo said. “I consider them all really students of the game. I think we are at most two-thirds of the way to being as good as we’ll be this year. It’s very exciting.”
Against RPI (1-9) the Panthers scored early and coasted home. They particularly looked crisp in the opening 15 minutes, and only aggressive work by Engineer goalie Rachel Kaufman kept them off the boards until Schweppe pounded home a goal 10:32 into the game on a penalty corner. Quirk injected to Jennings at the top of the circle, and Jennings stopped the ball for Schweppe, who drilled it into the lower left corner.  
Thirty-five seconds later Jennings raced down the left side around a defender (a regular sight) and crossed to Danielle Brown at the far post for a well-executed tap-in.
Jennings made it 3-0 at 24:47 after she again weaved her way down the left side. She worked back into the middle just inside the arc and slipped a shot just by Kaufman’s left pad.
Kaufman’s acrobatics helped keep the Panthers at bay the rest of the way. In the second half she denied a Quirk breakaway and a Freeman one-timer on a cross from Leonard, sprawled to deny Jennings, stopped Marissa Baker on a late penalty corner, and got help from the left post on another Schweppe drive on a penalty corner.
The Panther defense, including Olivia Green paired with Schweppe in the back, did not allow a shot on goalie Abby Furdak. Middlebury held advantages of 28-1 in shots and 12-4 in penalty corners.
On this past Saturday the Panthers cruised to the 6-1 victory over visiting Colby (5-2, 2-2 NESCAC).  Middlebury took an early 2-0 lead with goals 10 seconds apart. Quirk tapped a rebound past Colby goalie Riley Whitmyer (13 saves), and then Jennings drove toward the net in the circle and fed Baker for a redirection.
Colby’s best chance of the opening half came in the 12th minute, when Furdak came out of her crease with two Colby players closing in and forced Georgia Cassidy’s attempt just wide.
The Panthers made it 3-0 at 20:41, when Leonard lofted a reverse sweep into the cage.
After halftime the Panthers scored three goals in a span of 9:34. Erin Nicholas tapped in two rebounds, and Schweppe blasted a shot from the top of the circle on a penalty corner. The Mules’ Cassidy made it 6-1 on a penalty stroke.
Furdak made a career-high nine saves for the Panthers. Middlebury held a 20-14 edge in shots.
On Sept. 27 the Panthers scored the game’s final four goals in their 6-2 win over Skidmore (5-3).
Middlebury took a 2-0 lead when Freeman one-timed home an Emma Johns feed and Schweppe scored on a penalty corner, with the set-up from Jennings and Quirk.
Skidmore made it 2-1 before the break when Gabby Hyman scored on a rebound, and tied the game early in the second half when Sarah Winters finished off in scramble.
Then Middlebury pulled away: Julia Richards tipped in a Danielle Brown shot, Jennings converted a breakaway, and Freeman and Baker added late scores.
Furdak faced three shots in 65:27, while Megan Collins stopped a late penalty stroke. Skidmore goalie Zoe McGuire finished with eight saves.

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