Sports

Panther field hockey rules NCAA, wins title

THE MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE field hockey team poses with the NCAA Division III championship trophy after defeating Johns Hopkins in Sunday’s final. The title is the Coach Katharine DeLorenzo’s program’s fourth straight and fifth in six years. Photo by Will Costello

HARTFORD, Conn. — In the end, there was no doubt.

With precision passing, clinical and at times gritty finishing, relentless ball pressure and poised defense, the Middlebury College field hockey team finished its perfect season this past weekend with two three-goal wins in the NCAA Division III Final Four in Hartford.

Middlebury entered the weekend with a collective winning streak of 37 straight games. The top-ranked Panthers defeated the Nos. 4 and 2 teams, Rowan and Johns Hopkins, respectively, by outshooting them, 30-8, and outscoring them, 8-2.

In the process, they won their historic fourth straight D-III title, breaking the mark of three straight they shared with Salisbury; won their 30th straight game; and finished the season at 22-0, becoming the first D-III field hockey team in 14 years go undefeated.

Panther senior Erin Nicholas and sophomore Katie George scored twice in each game. Nicholas was named the tournament’s outstanding player and moved into third place in the program’s all-time scoring list with 65 goals and 35 assists.

Joining Nicholas and George on the all-tournament team were defensive central midfielder Amy Griffin and defender Joan Vera.

Nicholas and Vera are two of the team’s six seniors; forwards Isabel Chandler and Danielle Brown, midfielder Selin Everett, and defender Meg Fearey are the others. All but Vera were members of the 2017 team that started the run of four straight — there was no season in 2020, and they chose not to attend school that fall.

PANTHERS SPEAK OUT

George made sure those seniors got a shout-out during a post-game press conference also attended by Coach Katharine DeLorenzo, forward Audrey Lazar, Vera and Nicholas.

“What was really going through my mind this weekend was this was for the seniors. They really have been an amazing leading class,” George said. “I am unbelievably grateful to have been able to play with them.”

The players threw bouquets to Vera and fellow defenders Riley Marchin and Charlotte Marks. Nicholas and George were asked why the offense was so successful, and they both pointed to the defenders’ ability to switch the point of attack from side to side and make smart passes out of the back.

“We have an incredible back line of defenders,” Nicholas said. “They move the ball, and they send it up the field to our midfielders and forwards … It’s definitely been a focus of ours to possess the ball and attack from different angles.”

George said the quality of the defense and goalie Grace Harlan means the Panthers have more liberty to take chances and be creative on offense.

“We talk a lot about risk-reward,” George said. “Because of our defense, we can really push the envelope with that.”

Vera and Lazar discussed why the team has been so successful.

“We’re always working to achieve better, to score more, to do things even better than that last quarter,” Lazar said. “That’s why I think our team did so phenomenal this year, is never taking the foot off the gas.”

Vera said the team achieved what it hoped to by focusing daily on the details.

“We all had big goals coming into the preseason. But we also take one step at a time,” Vera said. “We obviously had the postseason and the tournament in mind, always. But we work one day at a time to do what we have to do. It’s been an incredible ride, and I feel so lucky to be here.”

DeLorenzo was asked about the championship streak.

“Consecutive doesn’t really mean that much to me. But when you bring the people into the story, that’s when it holds so much meaning. Consecutive means a certain group did this,” DeLorenzo said. “I think it speaks to the people who have done it.”

SUNDAY FINAL

The Panthers scored twice in the first period in Sunday’s 4-1 win over No. 2 Johns Hopkins University (21-1).

The first goal came at 8:39. Lazar carried the ball from the right corner into the circle. Johns Hopkins goalie Alexis Loder layed out to deny her shot, and Lazar and George both poked at the ball before George knocked it home.

JHU had back-to-back penalty corners after a Panther defensive turnover shortly afterward, but Bryn Rolon shot wide.

Nicholas made it 2-0 with a penalty stroke assessed after a Panther corner. Chandler fired on goal from the right of the stroke line, and the officials ruled a defender blocked the ball with her body. Nicholas whipped the ball into the left corner with 13:53 gone.

Early in the second period, Loder denied Griffin with a blocker save, and with five minutes remaining, Loder flashed her right foot to knock aside a ball from Chandler that was ticketed for the left corner after it deflected off a defender. Lazar and Nicholas also broke in alone on Loder, but Nicholas couldn’t control Lazar’s pass across the crease.

Early in the third period, the Blue Jays surged and forced four of their eight corners. In the second minute, Harlan denied Olivia Fox from the top of the circle, in the fourth minute the Panthers tipped another shot wide, and Anna Fox fired wide on the fourth corner in the fifth minute.

The Panthers took charge again as Lazar, George and Nicholas created chances. JHU defender Bailey Schwab made a stick save on Lazar at one point.

At 8:49, George struck again. Loder blocked a Nicholas shot, but George picked up the rebound, spun and reverse-sticked the rebound into the left side.

At 11:04 of the fourth, Nicholas made it 4-0 on a penalty corner. She took an insert from the right from Vera, moved in to near the stroke line, and fired through a screen into the cage’s right side.

The Blue Jays spoiled the shutout with three minutes remaining, when Tessa Erickson collected a loose ball after a scramble and backhanded the ball inside the left post.

Middlebury outshot JHU, 17-3. Harlan made two saves, while Loder made 11.

SEMIFINAL

On Saturday, the Panthers defeated No. 4 Rowan (18-3), also by 4-1.

George made it 1-0 with 7:41 gone. Nicholas beat two defenders and fed Lazar on the right. Lazar fed George cutting to goal. George’s first two shots were denied by Rowan goaltender Abby Hainsworth, but George sent the second rebound into the bottom left corner.

Kristiina Castagnola made it 1-1 with just 26 seconds remaining in the opening frame. She maneuvered past two Panthers into the circle, spun and sent a reverse chip into the upper left side.

Nicholas made it 2-1 at 3:39 into the second quarter. She beat three defenders on the way into the circle and ripped a 12-yard shot into the right side with a terrific solo effort.

The Profs had a chance in the 26th minute on a penalty corner, but Harlan made a left-footed kick save on Castagnola’s reverse-stick drive from near the stroke line. It was Harlan’s only save, but it came at a critical time.

George made it 3-1 at 6:26 of the third period. Fearey fed George to the left of the goal, and she carried across the goalmouth past a defender and tucked the ball into the far corner.

With nine minutes remaining, Rowan had a chance to cut the deficit to one, but Vera blocked Krystyna Hovell’s diving tip. Marks also ran down a couple of Prof attempts to break in on Harlan.

Middlebury tacked on its final goal on a late penalty corner. Nicholas, just to the left of the stroke line, flicked home a feed from Griffin into the left side. The Panthers outshot Rowan, 13-5, and Hainsworth made three saves.

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