MIDDLEBURY — In 2012, the Middlebury College men’s lacrosse team finished with a 4-9 record and missed not only the NCAA Division III tournament for the first time in years, but also failed for the first time to qualify for the NESCAC playoffs.
But it might be fair to call that record a little misleading: The Panthers lost five NESCAC games by one goal, and another by two goals.
“I don’t think we were very far off last year,” said Coach Dave Campbell on Tuesday.
Campbell was speaking after a comfortable 16-8 non-league win over visiting New England College, one that pushed the Panthers’ 2013 record to 7-1. They are also ranked No. 13 in NCAA Division III.
Those close NESCAC losses of 2012, at least so far, are mostly close wins in 2013. The Panthers, despite a tough, 7-6 home loss to Bowdoin on Saturday in which a furious three-goal rally died at the final horn in the Polar Bear goalie’s stick, are 4-1 in the league, a half-game out of first place. And they have won two NESCAC games by one goal and one by two goals.
Campbell said a number of things have gone right. He credits his team’s motivated seniors, notably its captains — defenders Billy Chapman and Johnny Duvnjak and attacker Stew Kerr — for setting the tone in offseason workouts and during practices.
“Our senior leadership is excellent. Our captains, our seniors, top to bottom, they’re all doing a phenomenal job, and I think it starts with them, just the mental toughness they’ve shown and how we’ve prepared, the energy we’ve brought to practice consistently. I think that’s shown in those close games,” Campbell said. “The preparation we’ve had on a daily basis has kicked up a notch over last year.”
Junior goalie Nate Gaudio has also excelled. A year ago, Gaudio recorded a .530 save percentage; so far in 2013, he has upped that to .620. Certainly, having veteran defenders like Chapman, Duvnjak and senior Zach Driscoll harassing the shooters has helped, but Campbell said Gaudio has been outstanding.
“He’s playing the best lacrosse of his career,” he said. “He’s always been good out of the cage, and he had some good games in the cage last year, but he’s consistently stopping the ball better than he ever has.”
Freshman attacker Jon Broome has also made an immediate impact, leading the Panthers with 20 goals and chipping in three assists.
“He’s definitely made a difference. He’s just a natural finisher,” Campbell said.
Still, Campbell acknowledged the Panthers still have a few things to work on. On Tuesday, two NEC goalies combined to make 22 saves while allowing 16 goals. In Saturday’s loss, Bowdoin goalie Christopher William stopped 18 out of 24 shots on goal, including Broome’s last-second, point-blank bid.
Campbell wishes the Panthers’ conversion rate was a little better.
“Finishing hasn’t been our strength,” he said after the NEC game. “Their (second-half) goalie played well, and I think you have to give him some credit, but I still think we have to make progress as a group of finishers.”
On the positive side, the Panthers scored several times on the break, one tactic Campbell hopes will help boost their offensive production. An indicator of how well they played in transition vs. NEC is their 26-for-27 performance clearing their own end — and the one failed clear was an offsides call that negated a successful pass.
“That’s something we’ve been talking about,” Campbell said. “We’ve wanted to push the ball more and we’ve been focusing on that in practice, and it was nice to see us get some of those opportunities. I’d love to see us can more of them, but it was nice to see us create those opportunities.”
The Panthers took control quickly on Tuesday. After one save by Gaudio the defense forced a couple NEC turnovers that led to transition goals by Kerr, set up by senior attacker Mike Giordano, and Broome, from senior middie Andrew Metros. Sophomore Joel Blockowicz scored an unassisted settled goal, and then at 6:43 of the first Broome (a team-high three goals) scored again on the break, this time from Giordano, and it was 4-0.
Dangerous NEC attackers Adam Shute (four goals) and Patrick Gillis (three) scored to make it 4-2 before sophomore attacker Chase Clymer took advantage of a pick to make it 5-2 after one period.
The Panthers then went on a 5-1 run in the first 7:18 of the second. Driscoll ran in from midfield, Kerr set up Giordano in transition, Giordano fed Broome with the Panthers a man up, Erich Pfeffer backed in and scored with a lefty shot, and after a Gillis score Metros beat NEC first-half goalie Cody Kitson (six saves) on the short side to make it 10-3 at 4:42. Shute and Gillis made it 10-5 at the half, but the Panthers were in control.
The Panthers subbed liberally in the second half, and new NEC goalie Chris Galluzzo kept the score semi-respectable with 16 saves. In the third period, junior Darric White and Clymer scored as the Panther lead grew to 12-6 entering the fourth quarter. Blockowicz, Pfeffer, Tim Giarusso and Quinn Cronan tacked on goals for the Panthers in the fourth. Gaudio finished with seven saves, Panther Brian Foster won 17 of 20 faceoffs, and Chapman picked up nine ground balls.
On Saturday, Bowdoin (6-2, 4-2 NESCAC) took a 7-3 lead before the Panthers rallied in the fourth on goals by Kerr, Giordano and Scott Redmond. Redmond made it 7-6 with 1:53 left. Bowdoin won the ensuing faceoff, but turned the ball over at 0:28. In the final seconds, Broome had the ball in the low slot, but William denied him as time expired.
Kerr had two goals and an assist, and Sean Carroll had a goal and two assists. Foster won 12 of 16 faceoffs and collected eight ground balls, and Gaudio stopped 15 shots.
The Panthers face a crucial weekend, with road contests at Amherst and Tufts on Saturday and Sunday, and Campbell said they must continue to work to get better.
“(There are a) lot of tough ones ahead,” he said. “We need to improve quickly, so hopefully there’s a lot of urgency when we get back out on the practice field.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.