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Panther men’s soccer moving up in standings

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s soccer team continued to surge this past weekend with two NESCAC victories, but neither came easily: At home on Sunday the Panther edged Wesleyan, 1-0 in overtime, and on Saturday they rallied from two goals down to defeat host Trinity, 3-2.
The weekend results pushed the Panthers’ unbeaten streak to seven games (5-0-2), a stretch that includes three wins and two ties in the competitive NESCAC.
Middlebury has for now moved into third place in the league at 4-2-2, behind Connecticut and Tufts, both 6-0-2, and just ahead of a knot of teams. 
The Panthers have two league games remaining, at home on Saturday against Bates and at Williams on Tuesday, both teams also battling for playoff position. Finishing in the league’s top four would mean the Panthers would host a NESCAC playoff quarterfinal on Saturday, Oct. 27.
First-year Coach Alex Elias, a former all-American Panther midfielder, said after Sunday’s overtime drama that the Panthers showed this past weekend what has helped them during their seven-game streak.
“The willingness to battle and outwork opponents has improved as the season has gone on. Now we expect it as opposed to try to be good at it,” Elias said. “The NESCAC is so even that we have to work and compete.”
Elias said the Panthers have also begun playing better together, their fitness has improved, the defense has been steady throughout, and the attack is now more dangerous and efficient.
“We had chances to win games (earlier on), and we just didn’t do it,” he said. “We’re being more clinical in front of goal and just creating more quality chances.”
That better finishing was valuable when the Panthers fell behind Trinity on Saturday despite outshooting the Bantams, 16-6.
The Bantams’ first two shots went in. In the 19th minute Bantam Alistair Matule ran onto a long pass and beat Middlebury goalie Matthew Hyer with a low shot into the left side. Five minutes later Matule hooked a shot inside the right post from the opposite corner of the Panther box.
The Panthers then erupted for three goals in 10:09. At 11:26 Drew Goulart rapped the ball home from point-blank range after passes by Daniel O’Grady and Fazl Shaikh. O’Grady knotted the score by carrying the ball to goal and sliding the ball inside the right post, a play set up by a long ball from midfielder Raffi Barsamian. At 1:17 defender Aidan Robinson headed home a Brendan Barry free kick for what proved to be the game-winner.
The Panthers had the better of play in the second half, but with Hyer out trying to break up a play Robinson blocked away Bantam Henry Belt’s low shot to the center of the net. Hyer finished with one save, and Lyons made eight for the Bantams.
On Sunday a Wesleyan team struggling to remain in the playoff hunt battled hard, and towering Cardinal goalie Teddy Lowen made eight saves and often either punched the ball out of trouble or came off his line to corral serves.
PANTHER SENIOR DANIEL O’Grady comes away with the ball from a scuffle with a Wesleyan defender Sunday afternoon.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
The Panthers outshot the Cardinals, 19-9, but only by 5-4 in a first half that Elias said was sluggish. He said younger players such as Shaikh, Barry, Davis Oudet and first-time starter Henry Wilhelm, a defender who eventually netted the game-winner, gave the Panthers a lift after halftime.
“I felt in the first half we had heavy legs. We played a hard match yesterday, and that caught up to us,” Elias said. “Some of the guys who haven’t played a ton of minutes this year stepped up, did well, were responsible on the ball, worked hard to win the ball back, and I think gradually the game began to swing in our favor.”
Early in the second half O’Grady had two good chances. On the first he started just outside the box and cut to the right before hitting a bullet back at Lowen, who did well to punch it away. On the second O’Grady moved right to left in the box and rolled a shot back toward the left post, but Lowen dove to smother it. In the 72nd minute Lowen also reacted well to a close-range header from Barsamian on a Davis serve.
Wesleyan tested the Panther defense with counterattacks, but Robinson, Michael McFarlane, Peter Davis and Wilhelm limited the looks on Hyer (three stops). His toughest save came after a corner kick in the 73rd minute. The ball was cleared outside the box, from where Jack Wolf put a 20-yard shot toward the right post that Hyer knocked away.
In the first minute of overtime, but Lowen denied his Goulart’s low, hard shot. Soon afterward Lowen just got his fingertips on a close-range McFarlane header.
At 8:19 Lowen could not stop Wilhelm. Davis sent the ball into the box from 25 yards out on the left side. Wilhelm controlled, spun and drilled a 15-yard left-footed shot straight inside the left post.
Elias said the Panthers did enough to deserve the win.
“Wesleyan did some things very well. They fought. They battled,” Elias said. “At the end of the day our guys probably created a few more chances.”
Overall, Elias said his team can still “do a lot of things a lot better,” but he is pleased with the steady improvement. 
“I’m optimistic the guys are going to continue to work and that we’ll keep improving,” he said. “We have a team that can compete with anybody. I think we’ve proven that to ourselves. Now we’ve just got to go do it. But there’s still a long way to go.”

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