Undefeated women’s lax survives challenge

PANTHER JUNIOR HOPE Shue goes on the attack during the Middlebury women’s lacrosse team’s 12-10 home win on Saturday. Shue scored five goals, twice late, as the Panthers rallied to preserve their perfect record. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College women’s lacrosse team found itself in uncharted territory on its home turf this past Saturday against Wesleyan.

With less than five minutes to go, the Cardinals held a 10-9 lead they’d earned after fighting back from an 8-6 third-quarter deficit. This came against a Panther team that was not only undefeated at 7-0 entering Saturday and the winner of 35 straight home games, but this spring had won every outing by at least eight goals. 

The Cardinals, a 5-1 outfit with quality victories on its resumé, appeared to have the momentum. Certainly, they were offering the Panthers their first real challenge of the season. 

Challenge accepted. 

Not only did Middlebury hold the Cardinals scoreless for the last 9:44, they scored three times in the final 4:32 to rally for a 12-10 victory. 

Middlebury followed that up with a less dramatic win on Tuesday, 19-3 at St. Lawrence, to improve to 9-0.

MIDDLEBURY JUNIOR MADDIE Coughlin fires in a goal during the Middlebury lacrosse team’s win over visiting Wesleyan on Saturday.
Independent photo/Steve James

In Saturday’s nailbiter, junior attacker Hope Shue did the lion’s share of the damage down the stretch. First, she attacked from the left side to force a foul, then converted the following free position shot by bolting past two defenders and finishing high into the net.

At 3:01, Shue cut in from the left, took a feed from senior Susan Rowley, led a defender in her wake, and again found the net from close range to make it 11-10.

Wesleyan won the ensuing draw, but two Panther defenders teamed up to draw an offensive foul, and Shue and Rowley went back to work. 

Shue again raced in from the left side, drawing three Cardinal defenders. She spun away from the pressure and found Rowley cutting to the net, and Rowley finished high from just outside the crease at 1:17. In a span of 3:15, the Panthers had gone from a goal down to two up. 

Wesleyan again won the draw, but Panther defenders Chloe Newman and Lucy Bishop sealed the result by causing turnovers as time wound down, and Middlebury’s perfect record and winning streak lived on.

MADDIE COUGHLIN, CENTER, is congratulated by her teammates after scoring vs. Wesleyan during the Middlebury women’s lacrosse home win on Saturday.
Independent photo/Steve James

Shue, who topped 200 points for her career (166 goals, 38 assists) with a five-goal, two-assist effort vs. Wesleyan, said the Panthers corrected course in the late surge.  

“We were missing some chances and forcing some things we shouldn’t have. So in the fourth quarter I thought we took care of the ball, and on those chances capitalized and uplifted each other, playing like we normally play,” Shue said. “It was definitely a good mental flip in the fourth quarter to not be scared and be on the attack,”

That last point might have been the most critical. The Panthers seemed tentative at times against Wesleyan’s tightly packed defense, and a more aggressive mindset paid off in those waning minutes.

“We realized we could just go to goal and exploit some stuff, find where their slides were looser,” Shue said. “That was definitely a big difference maker.”

She said the team ultimately responded well to its first adversity of the spring, and credited the Panther defense for its steady play.

“We hadn’t had a close game yet this season, and I think we’re not really used to that. We had three quarters under our belt getting used to a real tie game, and then we were able to pull through at the end,” Shue said. “The defense was the backbone of the team, and we have so much trust in them. That’s how we were able to get to that fourth quarter.”

PANTHER JUNIOR ANNA Spehr fires the ball high into the Wesleyan net during the Middlebury women’s lacrosse team home win on Saturday.
Independent photo/Steve James

Coach Kate Livesay was not pleased with the Panthers’ 20 turnovers, even if in turn they forced 18 Cardinal miscues. 

“That was the message to the team. You were lucky to survive against a team like that when you give the ball away as many times as you did. And if we want to be the team we want to be, we have to play a much cleaner game,” Livesay said “We’re hoping this is a game they learn from.”

But she also stressed the positive.

“We do have to give ourselves credit … and take some positives from being in a tight spot and working our way out of it,” she said.

Wesleyan (last week ranked No. 8 in NCAA Division III to the Panthers’ No. 1, served notice early it wouldn’t roll over for Middlebury. 

The Panthers took a 4-3 lead after one period on two goals by Shue, one assisted by Rowley; one by sophomore middie Maggie Coughlin on a free position earned after a transition feed from Shue; and finally a transition tiebreaker by draw specialist Caroline Adams with 0:06 left in the quarter. But Wesleyan kept answering and picking the corners against Panther goalie Gina Driscoll. Cardinals Laura Baine, Brook Nelson and Lindsey Diomede scored in the period. 

Early in the second period, Anna Spehr converted a Kelcey Dion right-to-left pass across the goalmouth to make it 5-3. That was one of three instances the Panthers took a two-goal lead, but each time the Cardinals didn’t allow them to extend it. Midway through the quarter, Baine and Shue traded goals, and it was 6-4 at the half. Shue’s was another transition goal set up by a long Spehr run.

During the first 2:24 of the second half, Baine and Diomede each scored and assisted each other, and the game was knotted at 6-6. Then Coughlin, from Shue at 8:09, and Spehr, from Skylar Lach behind the net at 7:02, gave the Panthers another two-goal lead.

MIDDLEBURY DEFENDER KYLIE Wilson scoops up a Wesleyan turnover during the Middlebury women’s lacrosse victory at home on Saturday.
Independent photo/Steve James

Again, it didn’t last. At 5:03, Wesleyan leading scorer Olivia Lai found the net, and 45 seconds later Dylan Green converted a Dibble feed, and the teams entered the fourth quarter at 8-8. 

Rowley made it 9-8 at 11:46 on a great individual effort. She knocked the ball loose at midfield, raced in 50 yards, dodged the last line of defense and whipped the ball home. 

The Cardinals were undeterred. A minute later Dibble dodged through the middle of the fan and found a corner, and the game was tied. Shortly afterward a Panther was sent off for a foul, and at 9:44 Lai got loose in the fan and fired a shot in for the 10-9 lead.

For the next five minutes, neither team could break through, in part because the Middlebury defense stood tall: Nikki Mormile, Madison Paylor, Chloe Newman, Grace Mumford, Kylie Wilson and Lucy Bishop all played well in the back, and middie Caroline Messer was key in transition. But finally the Panthers found their footing. 

Livesay explained: 

“We have some really great attackers who know that’s the time to step up. I think you saw people like Susan Rowley and Hope Shue knowing they can do it. They just need the ball in their hands and those opportunities,”  she said.

Livesay also credited the Cardinals and talked about the experience her team gained. 

“They played very well, and it was a good game, but we’re happy to be in those games,” she said. “It’s good for everybody to feel that and know what it takes in those moments.”

MIDDLEBURY SOPHOMORE MIDFIELDER Caroline Messer bolts up the field in transition during the Middlebury women’s lacrosse team’s home win on Saturday.
Independent photo/Steve James

On Tuesday, the Panthers had no trouble with host St. Lawrence, bolting to a 12-1 halftime lead on their way to their 19-3 victory. 

Rowley led the assault with four goals, and Shue and Spehr were next with three each. Lach and Maddie Ocampo each scored twice, and  Kate Motley, Adams, Messer, Britt Nawrocki and Burdine Atherton chipped in a goal apiece. Driscoll made six saves, and the Saints’ Courtney Lynn made four.

The Panthers were set to host RPI on Wednesday in a game moved from Thursday due to the impending snowstorm, and Colby (7-2) will visit on Saturday.

Colby is ranked No. 9 and owns an early-season win over Wesleyan and could pose a challenge. But Shue said this past Saturday the Panthers expect to improve. 

“I know we didn’t give it our best game today,” she said, “and we know we have to clean a couple things up.”  

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