Middlebury College women’s lacrosse starts up strong

MIDDLEBURY — As Middlebury College women’s lacrosse coach Kate Livesay put it, her Panthers faced “a gauntlet” last week — four games against top-20 teams in eight days, the first three on the road, and two of those in Pennsylvania against teams ranked in the top eight in NCAA Division III.
Despite nagging injuries, the Panthers ran the table, thanks in part to a change in defensive philosophy during the first win of the four, a 21-18 decision over host Bowdoin.
After that shootout, the 7-1 Panthers, who entered last week ranked No. 5, prevailed on March 26 at then No. 4 Salisbury, 7-6; edged host No. 8 York, 7-6, on March 28; and outlasted visiting No. 13 Amherst this past Saturday, 11-9, on Kohn Field.
MIDDLEBURY ATTACKER JENNA McNicholas scores the first of her three goals, shooting low past Amherst goalie Talia Land in the first half of Saturday’s 11-9 Panther victory.
Independent photo/Steve James
It begged the question of Livesay: What changed to help the Panthers allow just 23 goals in three games after Bowdoin lit them up for 18, a total rarely, if ever, seen against a Middlebury team?
Livesay said she had experimented with asking her team to play man-to-man defense, believing they had the athleticism to do so. But midway through the Bowdoin game she made the call to switch back to a zone defense with a roving backer in the middle of the fan.
That look, she said, allows perimeter defenders to be more aggressive and force turnovers — and against Amherst the Panthers forced 17 after causing 19 vs. York.
“We started the season trying to change things defensively and not just do what we’re good at. We tried to have more options defensively,” Livesay said. “But I also think in doing that we lost a little confidence in what we’re good at. So just recently we’ve gone back to what we’re good at.”
MIDDLEBURY ATTACKER KIRSTEN Murphy bulls her way through the Amherst defense on Kohn Field in the first half of the Panthers’ 11-9 win on Saturday.
Independent photo/Steve James
The defense deploys sophomore Addy Mitchell as the backer, and she leads Middlebury in caused turnovers with 18. Meanwhile Livesay said senior low defenders and senior midfielder Henley Hall communicate well and coordinate the back line.
“Our leadership is great in the backer (zone). Alex White, Susanna Baker, Henley Hall, we just have a lot of seniors who understand how to play that. We just get more out of it,” Livesay said.
Finally, Livesay said the defense also plays into goalie Julia Keith’s strength, which is stopping free position shots. Zones tend to create more positional fouls — defenders are not allowed to stand for more than three seconds in the defensive fan without closely guarding an attacker, or stand between a shooter and the goal without closely guarding the shooter.
BURLINGTON NATIVE AND Panther senior Casey O’Neil scores in the first half of Saturday’s 11-Middlebury 9 win over Amherst at Kohn Field.
Independent photo/Steve James
But Keith excels at stopping the free-position shots attackers are awarded as a result — Amherst went one-for-seven on Saturday, often passing up the chance to shoot, and Keith, for example stopped Mammoth standout Claire Dunbar’s free-position bid, and Dunbar had been five-for-five until then.
“You’re going to give up free positions in a backer, and Julia’s just been seeing those really well,” Livesay said.
Offensively the Panthers were dangerous even though two key attackers, Kate Zecca and Madeleine Riordan, were dealing with nagging ailments. Livesay said Middlebury will improve in that department.
“We’ve had some injuries, and we haven’t had a lot of time to practice this week because we’ve had four games,” she said. “So there’s some room to grow there.”
PANTHER ATTACKER JENNA McNicholas fires past Amherst goalie Talia Land for her second goal in Saturday’s 11-9 home win in Middlebury. Below, McNicholas celebrates with teammates Kirsten Murphy (25) and Emily Barnard (3).
Independent photos/Steve James
Saturday’s game opened with Panther Emily Barnard, on a nice dodge, and Mammoth Isabelle Sennett, from Dunbar, exchanging early goals. Then the Panthers scored the next two and were never caught. The first of senior Emma McDonagh’s four goals, on a feed to the crease from Grace Getman, gave the Panthers the lead at 42:11, and 53 seconds later Jenna McNicholas burst through the fan and buried a pass from Barnard.
The teams traded goals the rest of the half, with McDonagh twice and senior middie Casey O’Neill once answering Mammoth scores, and the Panthers led at the half, 6-4.
Early in the second Amherst sandwiched goals by Sennett and Becky Kendall around another strong Barnard move to make it 7-6.
Livesay called time after Kendall’s goal at 25:02, and the Panthers responded with a 3-0 run over the next 9:40. McNicholas scored back-to-back goals on set-ups from Kirsten Murphy and Sara DiCenso, and Barnard scooped in a low shot after taking a feed through traffic from McDonagh. Keith (seven saves) stopped a Kendall free position in the middle of the Panther surge.
Amherst managed to cut it to 11-9 with 8:15 to go, after which Dunbar and Natalie Landau each had chances on a free positions. But O’Neill and Erin Nicholas, respectively, checked the ball loose.
White picked up four ground balls and caused two turnovers to lead the Panther defense, and Murphy caused three turnovers at the other end. Sennett, Kendall and Hannah Fox each scored twice for Amherst, while Dunbar had a goal and three assists. Mammoth goalie Talia Land made six saves.
In the 7-6 win at York (5-3) O’Neill scored the tie-breaking goal with 4:27 left and Keith made a career-high 11 saves. Middlebury took a 4-1 first-half lead on goals from O’Neill, Getman, Emma McDonagh and Jane Earley, and still led by 4-2 at the half.
McDonagh and Getman scored two of the first three goals in the second half to make it 6-3 at 20:22. But York tied the game at 6-6 with just over five minutes left. Barnard fed O’Neill for the game winning shot, high inside the left post past York goalie Abby Smith (10 saves). In the final minutes Keith made three saves, two on point-blank shots.
MIDDLEBURY’S EMILY BARNARD shoots low past Amherst goalie Talia Land for one of her three goals in Saturday’s home Panther victory.
Independent photo/Steve James
Livesay said her team was running on fumes late in that game after all the travel, and she was pleased with their grit against both vs. York and Amherst. Overall, she said the Panthers have “learned a lot” during the first half of the season, including that they can compete with anyone. 
“This was like a gauntlet of a spring break, with three of those games on the road without a lot of rest,” she said. “What I’m most excited about is just the mindset of this team is to no matter what the circumstances compete and win. And they showed they could do that this week.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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