Panther field hockey headed to NCAA final four

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College field hockey team took no prisoners this weekend at an NCAA Division III Regional on the Panthers’ Kohn Field.
Middlebury (18-2) defeated both Rochester in Sunday’s final and the University of New England in Saturday’s semifinal by 5-0 scores; allowed only one shot on goal, to UNE on Saturday, in the games; received goals from eight Panthers; moved their winning streak to 14 games; and ran its streak of scoring at least three goals to 14 games.
And Coach Katharine DeLorenzo’s Panthers, ranked No. 2, are now headed to the NCAA final four in Louisville, Ky., where this coming weekend they will try to win their second national title in three years and third overall.
Senior Annie Leonard, one of two Panthers to notch two goals in the Regional, was thrilled that she and classmates Lauren Schweppe, Audrey Quirk, Caroline Knapp and Carson Peacock could enjoy their final games on their home turf.
“It’s so exciting just to have such an incredible weekend and to be back on our own field one last time and to secure that win,” Leonard said.
That group —  Schweppe, a defender, is the NESCAC Player of the Year, and Quirk is a starting midfielder — were part of the Panther team that won the 2015 NCAA title, as were junior starters Molly Freeman and Grace Jennings.
Leonard said that experience doesn’t count for as much as how the Panthers are playing right now.
“It’s a totally different team, so it’s hard to assume anything. But we are confident. We have a really, really good streak coming on, and the team’s looking great,” she said. “Everyone’s working so hard. So we’re excited.”
DeLorenzo said a couple of factors should work in the Panthers’ favor at the final four on Friday, when they will face Franklin & Marshall (18-3), and then hopefully on Sunday, when they would meet either defending champion Messiah (at 21-0 ranked No. 1) or The College of New Jersey (17-3).
   PANTHER JUNIOR GRACE Jennings tees up the ball for senior forward Annie Leonard, No. 22, as senior Lauren Schweppe, behind Jennings, and freshman Erin Nicholas, No. 15, look on. Leonard scored on the penalty corner play, and Jennings, Schweppe and Nicholas also had goals in the Panthers’ 5-0 win over UNE in Saturday’s NCAA Regional semifinal.
Addison Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy
One is the Panthers have answered challenges from tough NESCAC teams during their winning streak, DeLorenzo said.
“They’re very good at playing close games,” she said. “In the second half of the season we have not gone behind early.”
DeLorenzo also cited her team’s intelligence and passion for the game.
“This team is good at figuring stuff out, and they love playing, and that’s a good combination,” she said.
Leonard called having fun “the Middlebury field hockey motto.”
“We play together. We love what we’re doing,” Leonard said. “We’re so excited to be on the field together.”
It doesn’t hurt Middlebury has many skilled players, offensive weapons offensively, and an unselfish approach: Ten Panthers have least four goals. On Sunday Leonard explained how the Panthers have averaged 4.86 goals over their past 14 games.
“Our passes, we’re just connecting them so well. We’re just finding the open player,” Leonard said.
In Sunday’s 5-0 win over Rochester (18-3) the Panthers were frustrated in the first half by aggressive Yellowjacket goalie Kiran Sundaram (eight saves total), who denied a Jennings breakaway, a Kelly Coyle blast set up by Schweppe on a corner, and a Leonard penalty stroke; and strong defense, including two defensive saves by Colleen Maillee on Freeman.
Rochester managed only one shot, but it was a good bid: It sailed just wide left on penalty corner in the eighth minute.
The Yellowjackets almost escaped the half, but the Panthers scored in transition with 28 seconds to go. They worked the ball to Julia Richards off the right post. Sundaram came out, but Richards pulled the ball out of the goalie’s reach and flicked it over her into the cage.
The Panthers made it 2-0 at 27:16 of the second. Sundaram again came out to break up a play, but middie Marissa Baker raced into the middle of the circle to rap home a loose ball from about 20 feet out.
Quirk made it 3-0 at 17:11 on the third of three straight corners. Sundaram kicked away drives by Schweppe and Coyle on the first, but on the third Schweppe slid the ball over to Quirk off the left post, and she flicked it high into the cage.
At 8:31 Leonard spun and found the lower left corner for her team-high 16th goal, with Emma Johns assisting. At 4:11 Johns made it 5-0 by carrying into the right side of the circle and ripping home a 25-footer. Middlebury out-shot Rochester, 23-5, and none of Rochester’s shots landed on target.
On Saturday Jennings scored on a solo run into the left side of box, finishing with a 15-foot drive, at 8:55, and Middlebury Panthers put UNE (18-5) away with four goals in the final seven minutes of the first half. In between UNE held its own for a time and threatened on a penalty corner scramble in the 27th minute.
But Richards made it 2-0 game at 28:12. NESCAC Rookie of the Year Erin Nicholas centered to Richards, whose shot beat UNE goalie and South Burlington High School alum Liz Sargent.
The Panthers next three more goals came quickly. At 31:20 Nicholas beat a defender and tucked a shot from the right side inside the far post. The next strike came on a penalty corner. Jennings set up Leonard at the top of the circle, and she lofted a shot into the upper left corner. With 13 seconds left in the half, Schweppe made it 5-0 and taking a Leonard feed near the stroke line on another corner.
Middlebury goalie Abby Furdak finally saw action late in the second half, sprawling to her left to stop a UNE bid to make her only save of the day and weekend. The Panthers finished with a 12-4 advantage in shots.  
Leonard praised the two-deep defensive team of Schweppe and Olivia Green, while noting also that all the Panthers become defenders.
 “Our defense is absolutely incredible. Our team as a whole has been working really hard on overall team defense, from the forward line all the way to our goalkeeper,” Leonard said. “It’s just been stick together, shift together, work together and shut them down as early and as often as we can.”
 DeLorenzo enjoyed the fact that eight Panthers scored over the weekend.
 “Who’s scoring? Whoever has the ball. That’s awesome That means the team knows how to score the ball. It doesn’t matter whose hands it’s in,” she said. “It’s a fun brand of field hockey.”
And maybe that fun will continue for two more games.
“Certainly we have as good a chance as we’ve ever had,” DeLorenzo said. “But the other teams are good. That’s why they’re still playing.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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