By ANDY KIRKALDY
MIDDLEBURY — The new-look Middlebury College women’s lacrosse team passed its first serious test on Friday, turning back a rally from visiting Babson to win the Panthers’ home opener, 11-8.
Babson, an NCAA Division III tournament team a year ago, showed up on Friday ranked at No. 9 after two easy wins. The No. 6 Panthers, 2-0 after Friday’s result, had dismissed NESCAC foe Bates, 14-6, the weekend before, after taking an 11-0 halftime lead.
Longtime Middlebury coach Missy Foote said the Panthers learned more from Friday’s tougher challenge, including that the team’s inexperienced attack — two freshmen and a sophomore start — must keep working on its poise and precision.
“Bates was a good opener for us to help us build confidence. This was a real reality check,” Foote said. “What I said to them at the end of the game was we need to work on composure under pressure. That’s the other thing. Forget putting the ball in the goal. It’s whether we can maintain composure when we’ve got pressure on us.”
Early returns at the other end of the field look promising, even though Foote is asking her athletes to play a different defense. Middlebury has always primarily relied on a zone defense, but this spring has switched to what Foote calls a hybrid of zone and man-to-man defenses in which defenders routinely double-team attackers in order to create ball pressure.
Against many NESCAC teams that prefer to slow the game down and pass the ball around on the attack, notably perennial rival Amherst, Foote believes the more aggressive look will help create the faster pace the Panthers prefer.
“It’s a zone with more pressure on the ball,” Foote said. “I love it because it gives us the ability to go after the ball rather than just sitting around.”
That defensive backline, comprised of senior Taryn Petrelli, junior Carrie Sparkes and sophomore Taylor Brown as well as midfielders given the defensive assignments, forced many Babson turnovers and rushed shots. Babson coach Kully Reardon, a member of Foote’s 1997 and 1999 NCAA championship teams, gave it a good review.
“She just commented what a great defense it was and how hard to score against it it was,” Foote said.
Babson struck first on Friday. Midfielder Anna Collins shot from about 20 feet on Panther senior goalie Blair Bowie, who made the first of her seven saves. But the ball bounced right back to Collins, who netted her 11th goal of the season at 29:03.
The Panthers turned the ball over the first three times they touched it on the attack, but their defense slowed a team that had scored 39 goals in two games. At 22:24, Middlebury knotted the score on a fast break started by a forced Babson offensive turnover. Freshman Elizabeth Garry finished on a feed from senior middie Caroline Kirkendoll, who played a strong all-around game.
The Panthers began to take charge by pressuring Babson into mistakes at midfield and on defense. Babson committed 19 turnovers to Middlebury’s 16.
Sophomore middie Sally Ryan also took charge. At 20:16 Ryan blew through three defenders and scored, and at 17:54 she found sophomore attacker Chase Delano curling from behind the net to make it 3-1. At 15:25, Ryan bolted right down the middle of the defense and hit the lower right corner with a lefthanded shot to make it a four-goal game.
Garry scored a fluky goal that deflected in off the defense at 10:27 before Collins broke an almost 20-minute Babson scoring drought by converting Jackie Godfrey’s behind-the-net feed at 9:45. Babson then won the draw and attacked, and Bowie made a point-blank stop on Bridget McCurdy to preserve the three-goal lead.
The Panthers closed the first-half with relentless pressure on Babson and demonstrative goalie Sarah Macary. Macary (10 saves) stopped a Ryan free position bid at the three-minute mark, but Ryan converted a free position at 2:08. The Panthers forced more infractions, and Dana Heritage (three goals) converted free positions at 1:33 and 1:09 to make it 8-2 at the break.
But the tenor of the game changed in the first minute of second half, in part because Ryan, a key defender as well as attacker, received her second yellow card and was ejected.
College and high school women’s lacrosse officials have been instructed to call checks near the head more closely, and to assess yellow cards more readily for such infractions. And the penalized team must also play an athlete short for three minutes.
“It’s a really big adjustment for us, and they’re calling cards much tighter. Any swing near your head is a card,” Foote said.
And Ryan was missed while Babson rallied.
“We were without a key starter ... who always plays both ends of the field, and we don’t have (a substitute) who does that particularly well yet,“ Foote said.
While the Panther offense started to struggle again (after an early Middlebury goal was waved off because the Panthers had too many players on the field, forgetting about Ryan’s late first-half card), Babson slowly got back in the game despite the continued strong Middlebury defense.
Babson’s Erin Daley and Collins tallied unassisted goals at 29:31 and 22:24 to make it 8-4. After a Middlebury turnover, Kaitlyn Pettengill finished a fast break at 19:27.
Foote called for time, and the Panthers responded with Lindsay Winstead feeding Heritage from behind the net at 17:54 to make it 9-5.
Babson answered at 13:44, when Godfrey dodged through the Panther defense and converted. Bowie then stopped a fast-break bid after Babson won the ensuing faceoff, and then denied consecutive shots from Pettengill, a 50-goal scorer in 2008.
Senior Alice Demmerle converted a free position at 12:13, and it was 10-6. Lindsay Bucci converted at 7:24, and then at 5:58 Trisha Babson cashed in a Godfrey fast break feed after a Panther turnover, and it was 10-8.
The Panthers went into a stall, with mixed results, but managed to catch Macary out of position trying to steal the ball, leading to an easy clinching goal for Brown at 2:04.
Ultimately, Foote said whether her Panthers can, as usual, be in the running for the NESCAC and NCAA titles will hinge on the growth of her young attack.
“That’s the question for us this year. You want them to ramp up every game a little more and improve a little more, but they’ve got to have the confidence,” she said. “Dana’s taking over nicely on leadership, pulling her team together, and Chase will do the same, so it’s just whether the others can follow.”