Women’s lax reaches semis of NCAAs

PANTHER MIDFIELDER KELCEY Dion races past a Colby defender during the Middlebury lacrosse team’s NCAA quarterfinal victory on Sunday. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — The Colby Mules played an inspired game in Sunday’s NCAA Division III quarterfinal against their undefeated and top-ranked host, the Middlebury College women’s lacrosse team.

It still wasn’t enough, even though Colby came closer than anyone else this spring — Sunday’s final score was 12-7 —to knocking off the 20-0 Panthers. No other team had come within six goals of Middlebury. 

After Middlebury bolted to an 8-1 lead, the Mules slowly got to within 9-6 after three periods before the Panthers pulled away in the fourth. 

The Panthers are headed to Salem, Va., for the NCAA final four. They will take on Franklin & Marshall (17-4) at noon on Friday, while in the other semifinal William Smith (20-0) will face Gettysburg (17-4) at 3 p.m. The winners meet in the final at noon on Sunday. Middlebury, winner of 25 straight games and the defending NCAA champion, did not play any of those teams this season. 

Of note: William Smith defeated Tufts, 14-4, in another NCAA quarterfinal. The Panthers faced Tufts twice this season, winning at Tufts, 16-9, and topping the Jumbos, 19-13, in the NESCAC final. 

PANTHER MIDDIE SUSAN Rowley scores the Middlebury’s first goal in the Panther lacrosse team’s NCAA quarterfinal victory on Sunday. Middlebury hosted the Division III regional tournament, and beat Trinity on Saturday.
Independent photo/Steve James

Coach Kate Livesay said the Panthers were looking forward to seeing new teams after knocking off two NESCAC rivals in this past weekend’s four-team NCAA regional: On Saturday they thumped Trinity, 22-9.

“We’re just so thrilled to play other teams from other regions and just test ourselves from some of the other best in the country,” Livesay said.

Senior attacker Jane Earley, who racked up five goal and four assists vs. Trinity and a goal and four assists vs. Colby, said the Panthers try to maintain an underdog mentality going, and that won’t change heading into the final four. 

“We don’t underestimate our competition. And we go into every game regardless of the competition with the same game plan and same intensity,” Earley said on Sunday. “And today, honestly, was kind of an off day, and we still won. So I’m excited to see what we have to say, to answer back to that, next weekend.”

Colby had something to do with that off day. The 14-6 team earlier this spring lost big to the Panthers twice, but served notice on Saturday they had come to play in the NCAA tournament by defeating No. 6 The College of New Jersey, 14-9. TCNJ, which the Panthers had defeated in the regular season by 17-11, finished with a 16-4 record.

The Mules on Sunday scored first, with an Annie Eddy solo move in the third minute. But then the Panthers went on an 8-0 run, starting with midfielder Susan Rowley dodging in soon after Eddy’s goal and finishing high. Next, attacker Hope Shue found the lower left corner on a free position. A Shue solo run with a high finish quickly made it 3-1.

MIDDLEBURY MIDFIELDER CAROLINE Adams fires just wide early on in the Panther women’s lacrosse team’s NCAA quarterfinal win on Sunday.
Independent photo/Steve James

By the period’s end Middlebury led by 6-1: Rowley netted a feed from attacker Anna Spehr, Earley powered in and scored as she was being bowled over, and at 1:36 Maggie Coughlin, at the left post, deposited a transition feed from Shue. That play was set up by a groundball win by defender Kylie Wilson that triggered the break.

Two minutes into the second period the Panthers added another highlight-reel goal: middie Caroline Messer kissed a quick-stick goal into the left side on a Spehr feed from behind the net. At 11:44 Earley set up Spehr out front, and it was 8-1. 

And then the well ran dry. The Panthers scored just one goal between then and the end of the third quarter: Early in the third Messer finished high on a feed from Earley. That made it 9-5. 

What happened to the Panther attack, and how did they regain their footing?

 “We were just stagnant,” Livesay said. “We were just looking to dodge from the top, dodge from the top, and those lanes weren’t there. So you saw Jane do a really nice job of getting the D pulled in and finding the open person. And we found ways to get Hope open a little bit.”

Livesay also credited Colby’s goalie Sarah Hearns (17 saves) and the Mule defense: “They’re tough defensively, and their goalie is hot right now.”   

Middlebury’s defense — Erica Barr, Chloe Newman, Madison Paylor, Wilson Grace Mumford and goalie Annie Enrietto (eight saves) also played well, but Colby crept back into the game. In the second period Paige Saudek, Eddy and Elizabeth Hennessey found the net, and it was 8-4 at the half.  

In the third period, Mule Julia Jardina’s free position at 11:14 made it 8-5. Messer broke the ice for Middlebury less than a minute later, but Ally Franz answered for Colby at 6:17, and it was a three-goal game entering the fourth. 

Then the Panthers began to assert themselves. At 12:16 Shue, cutting in from the left, took a feed from Coughlin and buried a low shot. At 9:05 Earley cut through the fan, was doubled, and tossed the ball to her left to Rowley, who buried the feed. At 11-6 the momentum had swung to the Panthers.

Independent photo/Steve James

“I can pretty much bet on them sending a double when I want to drive,” said Earley. “I’ve learned over the years to keep my head up, watch that double come to me, and then dish it out.”

Colby’s Franz made it 11-7 at 8:31, but the Panthers answered at 6:15, when Earley again cut through the fan, this time feeding Coughlin off the left post, who finished to make it 12-7. Before long the Panthers were celebrating their 25th straight victory dating back to last year 

In Saturday’s 22-9 win over Trinity (13-6), Middlebury led by 13-5 at the half and then put the game out of reach by with a 7-1 third period.  Shue (two assists), Earley and Rowley each scored five goals to lead the attack; Kelcey Dion added a pair, and five Panthers contributed a goal apiece. The Panthers won 21 of 32 draws, with Earley controlling 11 of them.

Enrietto stopped five shots for Middlebury, and two Trinity goalies combined for nine saves. Molly McGuckin scored four goals to lead the Bantam attack. 

Afterward, both Livesay and Earley talked about the depth of talent on this Panther team. Both said having so many offensive weapons makes them hard to stop. 

Earley said the fact that all the middies and attackers are “hungry to score” puts pressure on opposing defenses, and that all the Panthers are confident in each other. 

“I have faith in every single person that they’re going to catch that pass,” she said. “That faith where everybody is so dialed in really sets this team apart.” 

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