Panther field hockey enters NCAAs on a roll

MIDDLEBURY — After this past weekend’s dominating performance at home while winning the program’s fifth NESCAC playoff title, the 16-2 Middlebury College field hockey team is setting its sights on an even bigger accomplishment — the program’s second NCAA Division III championship in three years.
On this past Sunday the NCAA awarded the Panthers, ranked No. 2 in the final poll, a home regional. So on this coming Saturday at 11 a.m. the Panthers will meet the winner of a Wednesday game between St. Joseph’s of Maine and University of New England.
The regional final will be played at 1 p.m. on Sunday, and the winner will advance to the NCAA final four in Louisville, Ky., the following weekend.
St. Joe’s and the Panthers have one common foe, Husson. Husson defeated St. Joe’s in overtime, while Middlebury trounced Husson, 7-0. UNE could be tougher, having defeated Husson and faced three NESCAC foes, losing one-goal games to Colby and Trinity and upsetting Bowdoin, 1-0. The Panthers defeated all those teams, but Bowdoin held them to a 1-0 decision in Maine and played tough for 60 minutes in this past Saturday’s NESCAC semifinal.
Wednesday’s other first-round game pitted Husson vs. Babson, with Babson (17-4) all but certain to face Rochester (17-3) on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Middlebury. Babson defeated Middlebury, 2-1, at home this fall.
That was Middlebury’s last setback, and the Panthers since then have racked up 12 straight wins in which they have scored at least three goals.
Rochester and Middlebury have one common foe: Rochester owns two one-goal wins over Skidmore. The Panthers defeated Skidmore, 6-2.
   MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SENIOR Lauren Schweppe and freshman goalkeeper Abby Furdak keep their eyes on an incoming shot during Saturday’s game against Bowdoin.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Now Middlebury Coach Katharine DeLorenzo said the Panthers are peaking as they make their 15th straight NCAA appearance: She called their 5-0 shutout of Trinity in the NESCAC final — they allowed just one shot on goal to the 12-6 Bantams, showed remarkable ball movement and scored four first-half goals — their best game of the year.
“It was good preparation, executing a game plan, and a happy team,” DeLorenzo said. “They really performed well and enjoyed it.”
DeLorenzo praised her team’s ability to use the entire field when clearing their own end, moving the ball through the middle, and attacking opponents’ circles.
She installed a new formation this fall that she said plays to the Panthers’ strengths. Middlebury deploys two deep defenders with strong stick skills, senior Lauren Schweppe and sophomore Olivia Green, behind a line of three midfielders, sophomore Kelly Coyle flanked by freshman Erin Nicholas and senior Audrey Quirk.
The two in the back routinely use each other, and the midfielders use them, to switch the point of attack, and the three midfielders give the backs options to send the ball forward.
“I think it’s about choosing a way to play with the people you have, a round peg in a round hole, and this is our round hole right now,” DeLorenzo said.
DeLorenzo also recently settled on the three midfielders after tinkering with the lineup.
“Locking in on a set defensive group has allowed us to get more and more stable,” she said. 
Senior right wing Annie Leonard, whose three goals over the weekend pushed her into second place in the program’s career scoring list with 71 goals and 23 assists, said depth of talent also makes the Panthers a tough opponent.
“It’s really hard to play against our team just because you don’t know who to cover,” Leonard said. “And also just having that depth has just allowed us to really push each other in practice, just come out with fire. Whoever is out on the field is just bringing it.”
Ten Panthers have scored at least four goals, led by Leonard (14 goals, 7 assists), junior left wing Grace Jennings (10 goals, 13 assists), junior forward Molly Freeman (12 goals, three assists), sophomore middie Marissa Baker and Nicholas (eight goals, four assists each), Quirk (four goals, seven assists), Schweppe (four goals, six assists), and Johns (five goals, two assists.)
In Sunday’s win over Trinity, Middlebury scored twice in the first 12 minutes, one from Freeman on a rebound of Jennings’ angled shot from the left side, and one from Johns, who tucked a 15-foot shot just inside the left post.
Leonard made it 4-0 before the break. At 21:58 she knocked in a Nicholas pass from the left, and at 26:31 Schweppe and found Leonard near the stroke line, and Leonard hit the lower left corner.
Leonard said the Panthers wanted to assert themselves early in the final.
“It was so important for us to really come out strong,” she said. “In a few games in the past we’ve been caught on our heels a little bit, so it was really a focus of ours right from the get-go to go forward, put the pressure on them.”
In the second half Freeman finished a sequence of crisp passes on a Panther penalty corner by tipping home a Schweppe feed.
 Goalie Abby Furdak batted away a deflected first-half shot by Trinity standout Kelcie Finn for her only save, while Trinity goalie Lori Berger made a few fine stops among her eight saves.
On Saturday Bowdoin (10-7) came out in a high-pressure posture that at times, especially early in the second half, bottled up the Panthers in their own end.
Middlebury took a 2-0 lead on early goals by Leonard, from Coyle, and by Jennings, from Freeman. Bowdoin’s Elizabeth Bennewitz made it 2-1 on a penalty corner 18:30 in and the Polar Bears earned territory over the next 15 minutes, but the Panthers made it 3-1 late in the half on a Nicholas goal, from Jennings. 
Bowdoin pressed in the second half and scored eight minutes in on a strong Emma Stevens tip-in of a Juliana Fiore cross. But the Panthers limited their shots on Furdak (two saves) and broke through for two Freeman goals in the final 10 minutes, with assists from Coyle and Nicholas. Bowdoin goalie Maddie Ferrucci made four saves.
Now Leonard, one of eight Panthers on the 2015 NCAA team, “absolutely” believes the Panthers have a shot at another NCAA crown, but will focus first on this weekend.
“We don’t look too far ahead. We take it day by day, and we’re looking forward to practicing another week, so that’s really exciting for us,” Leonard said. “And then we’ll see what happens.”
DeLorenzo said her plan in approaching the NCAA tournament will be if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“It’s a matter as a coach of not changing anything that’s good,” she said. “In our own coaching hallways we’d say, ‘Don’t screw them up.’”  

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