Sports

Panther field hockey dominates NCAA Regional tournament, heads to Final Four

NESCAC PLAYER OF the Year Erin Nicholas moves down the field during the Panther field hockey team’s 2-0 NCAA D-III tournament win over Tufts. Nicholas had a goal and an assist as the Panthers advanced into the final four, where they will seek their fourth straight title. Independent photo/Steve James

“One of our favorite sayings these days is, ‘The best defense is offense.’ They can’t score if they don’t have the ball. So that’s the mentality.”
— Panther forward Audrey Lazar

MIDDLEBURY — The first time the Middlebury College field hockey team met Tufts this season on the Panthers’ home turf, they allowed the Jumbos to score a late goal to force overtime. Only an Erin Nicholas goal in extra time preserved Middlebury’s unbeaten record.

After the top-ranked Panthers defeated visiting Tufts, 2-0, in an NCAA Division III quarterfinal on Sunday, that undefeated record remains intact — at 20-0.

And Middlebury avoided the same mistake it had made on Oct. 10, when the Panthers and Coach Katharine DeLorenzo said they became too conservative with a late lead.

Instead, on Sunday they pressured the Jumbos with the tactics that had allowed them to control the game to that point and added a second goal on a Nicholas penalty stroke.

“We continued to attack. We continued to switch the field even if sometimes it meant we were an inch in front of our own goal,” DeLorenzo said. “We continued to attack the whole field.”

Sophomore forward Audrey Lazar, who buried a Nicholas assist in the second quarter to give Middlebury the lead, put it simply.

“One of our favorite sayings these days is, “The best defense is offense,’” Lazar said. “They can’t score if they don’t have the ball. So that’s the mentality.”

MIDDLEBURY FORWARD SADIE LeStage scores past Endicott goalie Taylor Farin in the second quarter of Saturday’s 5-1 victory.
Independent photo/Steve James

The Panthers had easily gotten past Endicott on Saturday, 5-1, in their opening tournament game after taking a 4-0 halftime lead.

The Panthers will head this weekend to Hartford, Conn., for the final four, which their NESCAC rival Trinity will host. They will meet No. 4 Rowan (18-2) at 11 a.m. on Saturday, while No. 10 Trinity (15-5), will face No. 2 Johns Hopkins (21-0) at 1:30 p.m. Middlebury has met only Trinity among those teams this fall, winning 4-2 and 4-0.

The Panthers will be seeking a perfect season and the program’s fourth straight NCAA title. Nicholas, one of several Panthers along for the first three, said they have faith in their ability to keep winning and in their process.

“We are confident in ourselves. We are confident in our preparation. So it’s a week of practice, and then it’s do everything we can to be confident on the day of the game,” Nicholas said. “And then see what happens.”

PANTHER FORWARD AUDREY Lazar controls the ball on Sunday during the Middlebury field hockey team’s 2-0 NCAA D-III tournament win over Tufts, a result that propelled the Panthers into this weekend’s final four. Lazar’s second-period goal was the game-winner on Sunday.
Independent photo/Steve James

TUFTS GAME

Sometimes stats are misleading. This one is not: Tufts did not put a shot on Panther goalie Grace Harlan during Sunday’s game, nor did the Panthers allow a penalty corner.

Credit belongs to defenders Charlotte Marks, Riley Marchin and Joan Vera. Marks in the middle in particular excelled at knocking down aerials from the Tufts end with Jumbo forwards running behind her, when a miss would have led to a breakaway. Midfielders Amy Griffin and Katherine Lantzy also played key roles defensively.

But the Panthers also dominated possession with their tactics and skill.

DeLorenzo said the Panthers were both patient and fearless in moving the ball against the Tufts high-pressure tactics, particularly in moving the ball back to defenders to reset the attack.

“We really recycled the ball well when we didn’t have a path forward,” she said. “I think we saw a really exciting, uptempo offensive game from Middlebury.”

The best chances in the opening quarter both came from Nicholas, but Tufts goalie Sam Gibby made a pad save on one long blast in the seventh minute and kicked away a low reverse-stick bid.

MIDDLEBURY FORWARD KATIE George goes on the attack during the Panther field hockey team’s 2-0 NCAA D-III tournament win on Sunday over Tufts. George scored in Middlebury’s 5-1 win on Saturday over Endicott.
Independent photo/Steve James

Lazar’s goal came with 3:59 to go in the second period. She carried along the right end line and fed Nicholas cutting in from the top of the circle. Nicholas took a touch and returned the ball to Lazar, who dove to reach it and flicked it across the goalmouth and inside the left post. It was her 14th of the fall.

“I managed to slip it through a bunch of defenders and hoped and hoped it got through,” Lazar said.

A minute later Jumbo forward Kylie Rosenquest made a strong run into the Panther circle, but Marks dispossessed her. It was as good a chance as Tufts got.

The Jumbos did a better job of disrupting the Panthers in the third period — the only quarter in which Middlebury didn’t manage a shot at goal. That changed in the fourth, when the Panthers launched five of their 13 shots and Gibby made two of her six saves.

ERIN NICHOLAS RIPS home this fourth-quarter penalty stroke, which sealed Panther field hockey’s 2-0 NCAA D-III tournament win over Tufts on Sunday. Nicholas also assisted Middlebury’s first goal.
Independent photo/Steve James

But Gibby had no chance at 9:49, when Nicholas whipped her penalty stroke into the left side of the cage. That was Nicholas’s 24th score of the season.

After that it was just a matter of time before it became official the Panthers were going to win their 28th straight game, claim their 47th in a row at home field, and head to the final four.

“We’re going to go there undefeated, and we’re going to do the very best we can,” DeLorenzo said. “But we weren’t going to stay home today.”

SATURDAY GAME

The Panthers advanced to Sunday’s Regional final by coasting past Endicott (14-7) on Saturday, 5-1. After Middlebury took a 4-0 advantage into halftime, DeLorenzo subbed freely in the second half.

Middlebury’s Griffin scored 2:27 into the game. Isabel Chandler controlled the ball near the left post before spinning and finding Griffin near the top of the circle. From there, Griffin ripped a shot into the left side of the cage. The Gulls had one opportunity in the period, but Marchin caught Emily Lampasona from behind to thwart a breakaway bid.

The Panthers put the game away with three goals in less than four minutes in the second quarter.

The scoring binge began at 8:11 on a penalty corner, when Katie George, at the left post, tipped in a diagonal pass from Lantzy.

MIDDLEBURY FORWARD AUDREY Lazar works behind Endicott goalie Taylor Farrin to try to tuck the ball home during the host Panther field hockey team’s 5-1 victory in an NCAA D-III tournament game on Saturday. On Sunday the Panthers defeated Tufts, 2-0, to advance to the NCAA final four.
Independent photo/Steve James

Marchin made it 3-0 just over two minutes later. Lantzy fed Marchin in the circle to the left of the stroke line, and her reverse-stick shot found the cage’s left side; it looked like Gull goalie Taylor Farrin might have been screened. With 4:22 left before halftime, Sadie LeStage chipped a pass from Lilly Branka inside the left post on another penalty corner to make it 4-0.

In the third period, Nicholas made it 5-0 by reverse-sticking home a loose ball from near the stroke line.

Endicott’s Sydney Poulin converted on the Gulls’ only penalty corner with 5:44 to go in the game. Poulin took the insert at the top of the circle and drilled a shot inside the left post. Harlan made two saves, while Farrin made 14 for the Gulls.

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