Panther lax women reach NCAA final four

MIDDLEBURY — After the host Middlebury College women’s lacrosse team thoroughly dismantled Franklin & Marshall in a Sunday NCAA Division III quarterfinal, 16-4, both senior leading scorer Emma McDonagh and Coach Kate Livesay offered theories on why the Panthers are peaking at tournament time.
McDonagh said the tough competition the Panthers faced all season in NESCAC play made them better. There’s plenty of evidence to support that opinion.
Two other NESCAC teams, Tufts and Wesleyan, will join them the NCAA Final Four this weekend in Ashland, Va. Middlebury (20-1) will meet league foe Wesleyan (17-3) at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 25, in one semifinal, and NESCAC runner-up Tufts (19-2) will square off vs. Salisbury (19-3) in the other.
PANTHER MIDFIELD GRACE Getman fires the ball past the Franklin & Marshall goalie Emily Kitchin for a score in the first half of Middlebury’s big win on Sunday in the NCAA regional final.
Independent photo/Steve James
None of these three NESCAC teams has lost a game this spring except to other league teams: Tufts fell twice at Middlebury (10-9 both times, and Wesleyan lost once to Middlebury and twice to Tufts). Middlebury won at Salisbury, 11-6, and lost only to NESCAC foe Bates in its opener and has since reeled off 20 straight wins.
Since March only Tufts has come closer than four goals to the Panthers, and Bowdoin (10-8) gave Middlebury a better game (an 18-9 loss) in Saturday’s regional semifinal than Franklin & Marshall (17-5) did on Sunday.
Exactly how did McDonagh explain Sunday’s domination of the Diplomats?
“Our chemistry is incredible right now, and everybody is playing so well together,” McDonagh said. “I think this speaks to the NESCAC, too, all the regular season games that were so challenging for us just allowed us to get better throughout the season. Obviously F&M plays in a great league, too, but I think we’re playing our best lacrosse because of the NESCAC tournament, and just how bad we want it.”
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE MIDFIELD sensation Jane Early pops up in front of F&M goalie Emily Kitchin to score one of her four goals in the first half of the Panthers’ win on Sunday over Franklin & Marshall on Sunday. Earley also tallied four goals in the Regional semifinal against Bowdoin on Saturday.
Independent photo/Steve James
As for Livesay, she pointed to growth on the offensive end. The Panthers began their surge by switching from man-to-man to a zone defense with sophomore Addy Mitchell serving as a backer. But Livesay said the offense has since clicked into high gear by becoming more diverse.
“We just have confidence in a lot of attackers right now. I think for a while we were relying on a couple different goal scorers, and we’ve really developed our attack to be more versatile, just looking for each other a little bit more. We’re getting more assisted goals,” she said.
Again, facts back the contention. Nine Panthers scored in each of the weekend NCAA wins. And when senior defender Alex White went coast-to-coast vs. Bowdoin for her first goal of the season on Saturday she became the 18th Panther to score this spring.
Ten Panthers have at least 14 goals, led by McDonagh (54 goals, 17 assists), freshman Jane Earley (45G, 16A) and junior Emily Barnard (43G, 19A). And the Panthers racked up 14 assists in the two weekend games.
On Sunday F&M tried to slow Middlebury by packing in a tight man-to-man defense, but the tactic backfired as the Panthers attacked to force fouls and shooting-space calls in the defensive fan. Earley (twice) and middies Grace Getman and Erin Nicholas converted the resulting free positions to make it 4-0 in the first 7:34.
MIDDLEBURY PLAYERS MOB goalie Kate Furber at the final whistle of Sunday’s 16-4 win against Franklin & Marshall. Furber had replaced Julia Keith for the last 10 minutes of the game.
Independent photo/Steve James
Meanwhile the Panthers were bottling up F&M in its own end. Only half the Diplomats’ 14 first-half clearing attempts were successful. Attacker Kirsten Murphy knocked the ball loose on the next clearing attempt, and Earley scooped it and tossed in a breakaway to make it 5-0.
F&M won two draws and Caroline Kolva and Marissa McGarrey netted their team’s first shots of the game to make it 5-2 at 17:58. Then the Panthers scored five times in the half’s final 11:10. Earley whipped home, free position, and the Panthers followed with four crisply assisted strikes — a fast-break goal by Erica Barr set up by Lily Riseberg, a Barnard goal assisted by Earley, a Riseberg goal from Getman, and finally a Murphy goal from Barnard.
As Livesay subbed freely in the second half, one goal by McDonagh and two by Barnard, the second after she stole the ball at midfield and broke in alone, moved the game into running time. Kate Zecca added a pair of goals, and Hope Robertson benefitted from another quick Earley feed. Starting goalie Julia Keith and Kate Furber each made two saves, while F&M’s Emily Kitchin made 13 saves. McGarrey finished with two goals for F&M.
On Saturday Bowdoin trailed by just 8-5 early in the second half before the Panthers pulled away. Earley scored four goals, McDonagh and Getman each had a hat trick with one assist, while Barnard scored twice and dished out three assists. Casey O’Neill and Sarah Weppler each controlled five draws, while Mitchell scooped six ground balls. Keith made six saves as the Panthers held a foe to fewer than 10 goals for the 15th straight game. Two Bowdoin goalies combined for nine stops.
JUNIOR MIDDLEBURY DEFENDER Hayden Garrett is cross-checked by a Franklin & Marshall player while trying to advance the ball in Sunday’s NCAA regional final in Middlebury.
Independent photo/Steve James
After Sunday the Panthers could start focusing on a return trip to the NCAA final four. A year ago they lost to Gettysburg in the final, but Wesleyan upset the Bullets in their quarterfinal on Sunday. Middlebury’s nine seniors celebrated an NCAA title four years ago, and McDonagh said they are hungry for another, for themselves and their teammates.
“Ever since our seniors missed graduation because of a national championship, we had it in our minds that that’s what we wanted to do, too,” she said. “I want everyone to experience what we got to experience freshman year.”
THE PANTHER WOMEN’S lacrosse team basks in their 16-4 victory over Franklin & Marshall in Sunday’s NCAA Division III quarterfinal game in Middlebury. The 20-1 Panthers advanced to the NCAA Final Four in Ashland, Va., this coming Saturday and Sunday.
Independent photo/Steve James
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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