Panther Field hockey wins NCAA crown

MANHEIM, Penn. — The Middlebury College field hockey team defeated NESCAC rival Tufts, 2-0, in the NCAA Division III championship game on Sunday in the Spooky Nook Dome in Manheim, Penn., giving the Panthers their second straight national title and third in four years.
Sophomore Erin Nicholas scored both goals in the final for the Panthers, who finished 21-1. Tufts finished 19-3, with all three losses to Middlebury, one in the NESCAC title game.
On Saturday the Panthers knocked off previously undefeated Rowan in the same venue, 4-2, in the NCAA semifinal. Senior forward Grace Jennings sparked that win with two goals and an assist, and sophomore Danielle Brown scored twice.
The NCAA Division III title is the 36th for Middlebury College since 1994, when the school began eligible to compete for national championships.
In Sunday’s final Tufts, which earned advantages in shots (12-9) and penalty corners (9-5) and pressed for much of the first half, nearly scored on a penalty corner in the ninth minute, but Panther senior goalie Megan Collins kicked away Beth Krikorian’s blast.
Nicholas put the Panthers on the board at the 12:47 mark on a penalty corner. Tufts blocked Marissa Baker’s shot from the top of the circle, but Nicholas gathered the rebound and scored from seven yards out on the right side.
The Jumbos nearly tied the game at 20:35, but Gigi Tutoni’s tip on a feed from outside the circle hit the left post. The Jumbos earned five penalty corners in an eight-minute stretch midway through the half, but the Panther defense smothered them all and allowing only a few shots. Tufts had seven of its nine corners in the first half.
PANTHER MIDFIELDER MARISSA Baker controls the ball against a Tufts defender during Sunday’s NCAA Division III final in Manheim, Penn. Middlebury defeated Tufts, 2-0, for the program’s second straight NCAA title. Baker assisted two goals in the Panthers’ 4-2 win over previously undefeated Rowan in Saturday’s semifinal at the same venue.
Photo courtesy of Mark Palczewski
The Panthers controlled more of the second half and earned two early corners. On one Tufts defender Issy Del Priore saved a tip by senior Molly Freeman. Tufts threatened with rushes at 22:50 and 14:00, but Panther junior defender Olivia Green stuffed both opportunities.
Nicholas gave the Panthers breathing room with 10:59 remaining on a great individual effort. After beating four Tufts defenders down the field, she scored with a hard reverse sweep from eight yards out on the left side that beat Tufts goalie Andie Stallman (three saves). The goal was her team-leading 17th of the season — breaking a tie with Jennings — and fifth of the NCAA tournament.
Down the stretch Collins made one more big save, and junior middie Kelly Coyle made a key defensive block with 2:15 remaining, soon after which the Panthers celebrated.
In Saturday’s semifinal Rowan (22-1) earned more territory than the Panthers, especially in the first half, but could not contain Middlebury’s transition game, especially Jennings, who finished with two goals and an assist.
Rowan took the lead on a penalty corner 2:52 into the game. Collins kicked out a shot by Rachel Galante to the top of the circle. Julie Johnson collected it and fired a hard pass toward the left post, where a waiting Bridget Guinan whacked the ball high into far side.
Jennings answered at 6:14 by carrying in from midfield, beating several defenders, cutting to goal, and sliding home her own rebound after Rowan goalie Morgan Novak stopped her first two shots.
Collins (six saves) preserved the lead shortly afterward by denying a Krystyna Hovell breakaway. At the other end Novak (five saves) stopped Baker’s point-blank bid. 
Middlebury took the lead at 26:26 on a brilliant give-and-go worked by Jennings and Baker. After carrying the ball in from the left side, Jennings found Baker off the right post. Baker stretched for the pass and dove to send the ball back to Jennings at the left post, and Jennings dove to tap it home
The Panthers’ Brown made it 3-1 5:47 into the second half. Baker split two defenders, carried up the field and fed Brown on the right wing. After a few strides, Brown whacked a shot into the far side of the cage.
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE MIDFIELDER Erin Nicholas makes a move during the Panthers’ 2-0 victory over Tufts in Sunday’s NCAA Division III final in Manheim, Penn. Nicholas scored both goals in the championship game as the Panthers repeated as national champions and won their third title in four years.
Photo courtesy of Mark Palczewski
Rowan made it 3-2 when Galante converted a penalty stroke with 4:40 remaining. The goal was Galante 30th of the season.
The Panthers responded to seal the win 1:02 later. Jennings and Baker worked a give-and-go that gave Jennings the ball off the left post, and Jennings spun and found Brown open out front for the pad goal. Middlebury outshot Rowan, 15-14, while Rowan led in penalty corners, 7-2. 
Nicholas, Collins, Emma Johns and Baker were named to the All-Tournament team, while Jennings — who also serves as the flyer on the Panther group that defends penalty corners — earned Most Outstanding Player honors.

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