Panther field hockey claims league crown

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College field hockey team did not score at its typical four-goal-a-game pace while hosting the NESCAC final four this past weekend, but the Panthers controlled the action and stifled two opponents, No. 2 seed Tufts in Sunday’s final and No. 5 Trinity in Saturday’s semi, in two 1-0 victories. 
With 17-1 Middlebury’s second straight NESCAC title — and fifth in the past seven years — in hand, now the Panthers can turn their attention to claiming their second straight NCAA Division III championship — and third in four years. They were ranked No. 2 in the most recent NCAA poll.
Both senior co-captain Grace Jennings and Coach Katharine DeLorenzo said despite the few goals that the Panthers played exceptionally well vs. Tufts, which entered the game with a 16-1 record and the No. 4 NCAA ranking.
Jennings is an All-American forward who also plays a key role when the Panthers defend opposing penalty corners. She said that after the NESCAC title game more of the same, plus a little extra, would help the Panthers make another NCAA run.
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SOPHOMORE Erin Nicholas beats a Tufts defender and races down the field during Sunday’s NESCAC final, won by the Panthers, 1-0. Nicholas, Middlebury’s leading scorer, made several key defensive plays in the victory.
Independent photo/Angelo Lynn
“What it’s really going to come down to is just never being satisfied, knowing that although today was the best field hockey we’ve ever played, we can play better field hockey tomorrow,” Jennings said. “We need to aspire to be better individual field hockey players, and we need to aspire to be a better team as a whole. So that’s what it’s going to take, to always be hungry all the time.”
The Panthers will host an NCAA Regional this weekend. On Saturday at 11 a.m. they will take on the winner of a Wednesday game between Keene State (17-6) and SUNY-New Paltz (12-7). On Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Vassar (18-1) will meet either The College of New Jersey (14-4) or Keystone (14-4).  
The Regional final is set for 1:30 p.m. on Sunday in Middlebury, and the Spooky Nook Sports Center in Manheim, Pa., will host the final four on Nov. 16 and 17.
Before the Panthers could focus on the NCAA tournament they had to think about the NESCAC postseason, itself a challenge and a huge program goal. In this past Sunday’s final, Tufts, which took the Panthers into overtime in Middlebury during the regular season, had the better of play early on and earned four penalty corners in the first nine minutes.
On the second corner Panther goalie Megan Collins made a pad stop on Gigi Tutoni’s 15-foot flicked shot from the left side (it proved to be her only save), and the Panther defense blocked Sophie Schoeni’s rebound bid. The Jumbo defense was also knocking the ball away from Jennings and the other Panther attackers.
But about 15 minutes into the game the tide began to turn. DeLorenzo adjusted her lineup, including moving leading scorer Erin Nicholas from defense to midfield and Marissa Baker to the front line. The Panthers began to pressure the Jumbos more effectively when Tufts possessed, and on the attack control the ball more patiently to create better opportunities.
They dominated play for the final 20 minutes of the first half and first 25 of the second after the tweak.
PANTHER DEFENDER OLIVIA Green moves to block a shot during the Middlebury field hockey team’s 1-0 victory over Tufts this past Sunday in the NESCAC playoff championship. The Panthers will host an NCAA Regional this Saturday and Sunday as they seek to add another national title to their résumé.
Independent photo/Angelo Lynn
“This game we came in with two different lineups. We knew we wanted to start with the most familiar one, but we were quite sure the one we moved to was the one that was going to win us the game,” DeLorenzo said. “As soon as we moved to that I thought we outmatched their speed. I thought we were a little quicker than they were. We were able to take some risks and still recover if we missed.”
With 13 minutes left in the half the speedy Jennings broke loose into the box, but the last line of defense held up, and soon afterward a defensive save denied midfielder Emma Johns.
Then the Panthers cashed in on the third of three straight corners. The insert came from the left side to Baker at the top of the circle. Baker slid the ball about 10 feet back to her left to Johns, who took one touch toward goal and whipped a shot inside the left post at 4:02. Tufts goalie Andie Stallman (two saves) had no chance.
The Panthers kept pressing, and Jennings raced around several defenders and her crossing pass just missed connecting with Molly Freeman at the right post at 1:30.
“We had a couple of plays that were just worth points mentally. Unfortunately they weren’t worth points on the scoreboard,” DeLorenzo said.
The first 25 minutes of the second half were more of the same, with Jennings and Nicholas creating the best chances for the Panthers, and Jennings also breaking up a lone Tufts corner.
Jennings said things clicked everywhere except on the scoreboard as the Panthers played with the poise their coach asked of them.
“Coach DeLorenzo tells us all the time when you’re on the field you have to be patient. You have to read what’s happening, and that’s exactly what we did. It’s just instinct. We just trained so well. We practiced for this,” Jennings said. “And we just executed it, just by trusting ourselves, trusting our structure.”
Then came the final 10 minutes. With Tufts in desperation mode and a Panther sent off for five minutes with a yellow card, the Jumbos earned five corners in the final 10-plus minutes. The Panther defense — Olivia Green, Cornwall’s Sophia Peluso, Meg Fearey and Alison Denby all played well — knocked down two shots on one. Green, Fearey and Nicholas broke up plays, and Green deflected a shot wide on the others.
Finally as time expired Jumbo Beth Krikorian’s shot went well wide right, and the Panthers celebrated.
MEMBERS OF THE Middlebury College field hockey team celebrate Sunday’s NESCAC title game win over Tufts by hoisting the championship plaque into the air. The Panthers won their second straight league championship and will host an NCAA Division III Regional this weekend as they begin their quest for a second consecutive national title.
Independent photo/Angelo Lynn
On Saturday the Panthers outlasted Trinity and a lengthy weather delay, 1-0. Baker swept in a Nicholas feed at 24:24 of the first half for the goal, and Collins made two saves, including batting a penalty corner shot away in the late going. Fearey also made a pair of key plays to deny Bantam fast breaks in the final 10 minutes. Middlebury earned edges of 14-4 in shots and 12-3 in penalty corners.
On Sunday, DeLorenzo shared her recipe for more success moving forward.
“We’ll just keep pushing the tempo. And with more defenders getting more minutes against the best teams, now we’re getting deeper,” she said. “And we’ll keep having fun.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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