Andy Kirkaldy: Women’s hockey miracle was just one of sport’s joys

When the clock stopped with 16 seconds left in the third period of Saturday’s NESCAC women’s hockey quarterfinal, a beefy student in the front row wearing a Middlebury College sweatshirt, maybe 15 feet away from us, turned to the crowd and expressed perfectly what we all felt:
“Holy bleep.”
The Panthers, many of them his friends, had just scored twice in 21 seconds to wipe out a two-goal deficit. Their net, 200 feet away at the other end of Chip Kenyon Arena, stood unguarded — goalie Lin Han watched from the bench, possibly mouthing those same words.
Her team would win in overtime, scoring 2:23 into the extra session. That would be three goals in three minutes for a team that had scored just three times during something about as unlikely as those two goals in 21 seconds — four straight losses for a team that is now 578-154-45 with Coach Bill Mandigo behind the bench. The Panthers will try to build a new winning streak this weekend in the NESCAC final four at Williams.
There’s a larger point here. This is one of the beauties of sport. It’s unscripted. You really don’t know what will happen.
Sure, we can be stunned to find out that Bruce Willis was dead all along or that Rosebud was Kane’s sled. But by now we’re all programmed to expect the surprise twist in a movie or on TV. Most of us can spot the murderer in a detective show coming down Broadway.
But the almost 600 people in Kenyon Arena this past Saturday achieved a catharsis, a spontaneous release of delighted surprise and emotion not easily found anywhere outside of a rink, stadium or field.
Something Bill said also stuck with me. He said in all his years in hockey he had never seen anything like it.
It’s not like I took it as a challenge, but I’ve seen a lot over the years, too. What has been close?
Well, the Middlebury Union High School girls’ lacrosse team fell behind in their 2018 final by 4-0 to Champlain Valley, a team that had already defeated them twice. The Tigers rallied to win a close game, with some late drama. Great game, but not quite the same. And I could come up with other decent examples from the past few months and years.
But I had to get in the Wayback Machine to find great comps. In late February 2004 the No. 6 Mount Abraham boys’ basketball team scored four points in the final 11.8 seconds to edge No. 11 Woodstock, 62-60.
And it wasn’t as routine as that sounds. The Eagles led by 10 in the fourth quarter, but the Wasps took a late two-point lead. Jordan Estey hit two clutch free throws to tie the game at 0:11.8, and then, well, all hell broke loose.
The Wasps missed at the other end, and Eagle Ned Telling rebounded and gave the ball to Estey with about five seconds left. Estey, unsure of how much time he had, took a couple dribbles and launched from midcourt. With three seconds to go and Kevin Labas racing ahead of him.
But Estey’s heave hit the backboard. The ball bounced right to the streaking Labas, who laid it in just before the buzzer sounded. The Eagles won.
I never did ask then coach Bill Leggett if the home book credited Jordan with an assist.
Then there is the finish that is most comparable to the Miracle at Kenyon. There’s a Panther men’s soccer game, also from 2004, that former coach Dave Saward and I touched on every now and then. A search through the Middlebury archives provided some details, but others remain crystal clear.
Visiting Tufts scored with 17 minutes left in the second half to take a 3-0 lead. I believe it was on that play that Panther goalie David Lindholm, son of the award-winning columnist who occupies this space once a month, collided head first with the upper right goalpost trying in vain to make the save. Being a Lindholm, he was fine.
So the Panthers trailed by three, and time was running out. Enter David LaRocca. LaRocca scored two minutes later to make it 3-1. Still, not much hope for the home side.
A pause: Hockey teams are roughly twice as likely to score as soccer teams. The Panther men’s soccer team averaged 1.76 goals both in 2004 and 2018. The Panther men’s hockey team averaged 5.1 goals in 2004 and 2.4 goals this season; average that out and you get 3.7 per game.
Bottom line: A comeback in that soccer game was not something on which to lay down the rent money.
LaRocca scored again at 77:15. Two goals in 2:09. OK, maybe Saward’s lads had a puncher’s chance.
But the clock kept ticking. With 30 seconds left in regulation the Panthers, pressing, earned a corner kick. Yes, they pulled the goalie. Lindholm sprinted down the field to join the attack. The corner kick came in and pinged around the box. LaRocca tapped the ball across the goalmouth, and John Rustin banged it home with 18 seconds left in regulation to tie the score.
Fifty-five seconds into overtime, Kellan Florio potted the game-winner. Yes, LaRocca got the assist. Two goals and two assists in 15:31. He finished the season with eight goals and those two assists.
So, lightning has struck that campus at least twice.
Holy $&!#, indeed.

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