Panther field hockey wins 6th NESCAC title; set for NCAA
MIDDLEBURY — The players and coaches of the Middlebury College field hockey team say they just focus on the task at hand and take it practice by practice and opponent by opponent.
In the meantime the 18-0 Panthers are rewriting the record books.
On Sunday they defeated No. 4 seed Williams, 4-0, in the NESCAC tournament final. Middlebury earned its sixth-straight league title and 10th overall. Both are NESCAC records, as is the team’s 43 wins in the league postseason.
Sunday’s win also qualified the Panthers for the NCAA Division III tournament, where they will be seeking the program’s sixth straight national title.
The Panthers, ranked No. 1 in NCAA D-III, are not hosting an NCAA tournament regional, apparently because with the Panther men’s soccer team also hosting NCAA games this weekend the area lacks enough accommodations.
The NCAA instead sent them to a sectional hosted by Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pa. With a record of 17-1, Messiah is ranked No. 5 in the most recent poll.
No. 2 Babson (20-1), No. 3 Christopher Newport (17-0) and No. 4 Johns Hopkins (18-1) will also host NCAA tournament games this weekend. The semifinal and final will be held on Nov. 17 and 19 in Newport News, Va.
The Panthers will play on Saturday, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m. against the winner of a Wednesday game between William Smith (13-7) and Susquehanna (15-5). Messiah will take to its home field at 2 p.m. on Saturday against either Cortland (17-1) or Stevens (17-2). Saturday’s winners will play on Sunday at 1 p.m. for the right to go to the final four.
Whoever they play, the Panthers are unlikely to be swayed from the day-to-day approach that Senior Tri-Captain Katie George said Coach Katharine DeLorenzo has instilled and has led to a 124-5 record over the past six seasons.
“We don’t rest on our laurels,” George said. “So every day we’re looking to get better and at what we learn from a game. So even if we come out winning a game, we’re still looking at the mistakes we made in that game to then improve and get better.”
DeLorenzo said the Panthers are not distracted by shiny baubles like undefeated seasons or trophies because they never discuss anything at practices or meetings except improvement, next opponents, and team bonding.
“We keep a team focused by focusing on what created those wins. We never talk about the record,” DeLorenzo said.
“We didn’t even talk about this being a NESCAC championship game. We talk about it being a game against Williams today, on Nov. 5. And that’s how you approach it like you do the first game of the season and the 10th game of the season. And it feels the same to them, so they play without any fear.”
In their win on Sunday the Panther outshot the 10-7 Ephs, 30-6. They also started quickly, scoring twice in the first 10 minutes after forcing Eph goalie Gates Tenerowicz (11 saves) to stop Katherine Lantzy in the opening minute.
Three minutes in Tenerowicz denied Panther midfielder Caroline Segal’s first bid from close range as Segal cut in from the left. But Segal tucked her own rebound home to start the scoring.
George made it 2-0 with 5:40 gone. Center back Charlotte Marks threaded a 30-yard pass to Sadie LeStage to the right of the goal, and LeStage quickly slid the ball to George bolting through the circle. George ripped an eight-yard one-timer home to complete the play.
A sprawling save by the Williams goalie just 20 seconds into the second frame on a close-range bid by George kept the score 2-0, and then the Ephs began to slow the Panthers down. They clogged the passing lanes, and began to gain some possession.
The Ephs had their best scoring chance with 8:45 gone in the quarter, when Jacqui Sandor blasted a shot from the right side that Panther goalie KK Newton (two saves) denied with her left pad. Eph Kiki Higgins’s rebound attempt went just wide. The Ephs also earned two corners in the period.
The Panthers adjusted at halftime. DeLorenzo said she asked her backs to move the ball from side to side wider and quicker, and that opened up passing lanes up the middle to key middies Amy Griffin and Segal.
George, whose three goals this weekend gave her 20 for the season and 67 for her career, good for third in program history, said it was an example of the Panthers learning on the fly.
“We had to come up with a new plan because they were stuffing us up the sidelines,” George said. “We found more lanes in the middle and tried to move the ball faster.”
It worked: The Panthers dominated the third period, earning eight penalty corners to none for Williams, and forced Tenerowicz to make eight of her saves in the second half.
Senior Audrey Lazar had the best early chances before Griffin made it 3-0 following a penalty corner. The Ephs broke up the initial play, but the Panthers sent the ball back in to Griffin inside the arc. She stickhandled closer and wristed a shot into the right side of the cage.
Middlebury middie Lilly Branka made it 4-0 by whipping a penalty stroke into the upper left corner 4:34 into the fourth quarter.
DeLorenzo was pleased with the effort: “It was brilliant to watch, heads up, eyes wide open, used every inch of the field offensively, covered every inch of the field defensively,” DeLorenzo said.
The Panthers got to Sunday’s NESCAC final by defeating No. 12 Amherst, 4-1, in the tournament’s semifinal on Saturday in Middlebury. George got two goals, Segal and Hanna Medwar tallied a goal apiece, and Newton saved two shots on goal.
Moving forward, it’s probable that the Panthers will face tougher challenges in the NCAA tournament than they have in this past NESCAC season and tournament.
But they might also have intangibles on their side, as well. George was asked what it has been like the past few years playing in the Middlebury College field hockey program.
“It is an experience like no other, and I’m forever grateful,” she said. “And I know that everyone on my team feels the same way, that gratitude, that joy. We just love coming to practice and love being a team and love playing together, and that’s what we’re feeling, that love and that inspiration from each other.”
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