Panther hockey proves they deserve to be in NCAA tourney by demolishing Suffolk
MIDDLEBURY — Given the way the Middlebury College women’s hockey team dominated visiting Suffolk University in Wednesday’s NCAA Division III first-round game in a 4-0 win, what happened the previous Sunday probably was more pivotal.
That’s when the defending NCAA champion Panthers gathered around a computer screen with Coach Bill Mandigo to learn if they would get an invitation to the dance.
Even with the NCAA field expanded to 11 teams it was far from certain — Middlebury had lost to top-seeded Amherst on March 3 in a NESCAC semifinal as a No. 4 seed.
But the news was good: The Panthers were not only in, but they would host Suffolk, a first-time NCAA participant that concluded its season at 18-8-2.
After they defeated Suffolk, the Middlebury skaters described what it was like three days earlier to learn they would defend their title.
“We all watched the selection show together, and it was a little nerve-wracking,” said freshman Avery McInerny in the press conference after Wednesday’s big win, in which she scored twice. “But it was super exciting when we found out, especially having a home game.”
Mandigo said he has evidence of what it was like in the room.
“I have a video of it,” Mandigo said. “It’s pretty cool to watch. These guys kind of explode into joy.”
Next up for the 17-7-3 Panthers will be a Saturday 3 p.m. quarterfinal at SUNY-Plattsburgh (25-2). The Cardinals topped the Panthers in overtime, 2-1, in Kenyon Arena, back on Jan. 10.
Middlebury senior co-captain Jenna Letterie, who racked up a goal and three assists on Wednesday, said the Panthers are looking forward to the rematch.
“We’re trying to play all the teams we lost to earlier on to prove that we’ve worked hard and we’re a better team than we were earlier in the season,” Letterie said. “We can come Saturday and play our best and see what happens.”
Mandigo said the key might be taking advantage of the fewer chances the Panthers are likely to get on Saturday than they did on Wednesday, when they outshot Suffolk, 45-22.
“The further you go along you play against better teams,” Mandigo said. “Your opportunities to score are less, because everyone plays good defense. So you’ve got to find a way to be opportunistic, find a way to put the puck in the net when you have the chance.”
More good work from goalie Sophia Merageas will also be helpful vs. Plattsburgh. Merageas, behind solid defense, has allowed only two goals in her past four outings, both in last weekend’s loss to Amherst.
“The last four games she’s been excellent,” Mandigo said.
On Wednesday, Middlebury did not allow a Suffolk shot in the first six minutes. Ram goalie Lily O’Neil made her best early save by stopping Jordan Hower’s point-blank rebound bid of a Molly MacQueen shot.
More chances for the Panthers came from Hower and linemates Caroline Cutter and Cat Appleyard, and defenders Cece Ziegler and Ashley McDonald. At 12:34 O’Neil moved quickly to deny McInerny at the right post on a two-on-on with Letterie.
Merageas also made a key save with three minutes to go in the period and the game still scoreless. Ram Jesse Kennedy picked up a loose puck in the left circle and lined up a shot alone in the slot, but Merageas smothered her low bid with her left pad and stick.
With 35 seconds left in the period Middlebury took the lead thanks to freshman sniper Britt Nawrocki. Letterie won the puck along the left boards at mid-ice, kicking it up to Nawrocki, who steamed into the zone and beat O’Neil far side from the inside of the left circle.
“That’s such a huge deal going into the locker room up one,” Mandigo said. “What a great shot.”
McInerny made it 2-0 on a power play 2:39 into the second period, banging in a rebound of a Nawrocki shot from the slot, with Letterie also assisting.
Merageas made another big save mid-period, denying Vanessa Stuart on a doorstep rebound after stopping Taylor Nowak’s first bid on a two-on-one.
At 16:19 of the period, McInerny made it 3-0. The play started with Letterie feeding Nawrocki in the slot. Her shot rang the left pipe and bounced to the right circle. McInerny picked it up, skated into the slot, and found the net with a low shot through traffic.
Letterie made it 4-0 at 4:52 of the third with the teams skating four-on-four. Her high shot from between the circles beat O’Neal glove side. The Panthers poured on the pressure the rest of the way, but O’Neal finished with 41 saves to keep them in check. Merageas made 22 saves for the shutout.
Mandigo praised the effort from the Rams and their goalie.
“All credit to Suffolk. I thought they played hard. They’re goalie is very good,” he said.
And Letterie summed up the Panthers’ feelings, especially those of the half-dozen seniors who skated on Wednesday.
“The hockey gods kind of shined down on us and gave us this great opportunity to have another game at home, which a lot of us weren’t expecting,” she said. “It was amazing to get one last game in Kenyon, and just to come out really strong and bounce back and prove we deserved to be in this tournament.”
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