MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College women’s lacrosse team is unquestionably on a roll after capping off a 3-0 week by defeating visiting NESCAC foe Tufts, 15-8, on Sunday, a day after knocking off Division III’s 10th-ranked team, Amherst, 13-4, also at home.
The No. 3 Panthers improved to 10-0, 7-0 in NESCAC play, a mark that also includes a Wednesday win at another league opponent, Hamilton, 11-6.
But as happy as longtime Panther coach Missy Foote is with her team’s play, she also knows the Panthers’ two toughest games remain: At undefeated No. 1 Trinity this coming Saturday, and on April 20 at Colby, which lost for the first time this season at Trinity on Sunday, 8-4.
A deep breath and a tune-up this week is in order, Foote said.
“For the Trinity matchup on Saturday, we need to be rested, so that’s going to be our focus this week,” she said.
This past weekend, Foote said the Panthers played better on Saturday vs. Amherst (6-3, 3-3 NESCAC) than vs. Tufts (5-4, 2-4 league) in the second game in two days and third in five. But they still managed to run off seven unanswered goals to stretch an 8-5 halftime lead to 15-5 before Tufts scored three times in the final five minutes.
“It was a pretty typical back-to-back game for us, where we played hard yesterday. It was a good win against Amherst,” Foote said. “Definitely by mid-game I could tell we were struggling a little bit with our tired legs.”
Certainly, the Panthers will have a few things going for them on Saturday heading into Trinity, which is coached by former Panther and Middlebury Union High School all-star Kate Perine Livesay.
One is the number of weapons they have on offense. Middlebury has outscored its 10 opponents, 152-64; seven players have at least 10 goals; and six have at least seven assists, led by senior attacker Ellen Halle (33 goals, 19 assists) and senior midfielder Margaret Souther (23G, 9A).
That offensive balance baffled Tufts on Sunday. Three Panthers scored three goals apiece, Halle, freshman middie Laurel Pascal and senior attacker Emma Kramer; while two had two each, sophomore middie Katie Ritter and junior middie Liza Herzog. And the Panthers’ crisp ball movement could be seen in their eight assists, two each from Ritter and Souther. Souther and freshman Megan Griffin tacked on the other goals.
“That’s one of the hallmarks,” Foote said. “We’ve got a lot of people who can put the ball in the goal … We’ve got players who even if they’re not scoring who can handle the ball.”
The Panthers also control draws. They have won 90 of 144 on the season, with sophomore Cat Fowler taking most of the draws, and Herzog and Souther scooping them up. Vs. Tufts, Middlebury won 18 of 24, including several in a row as they stretched their three-goal halftime lead.
And Middlebury is quick. Freshman middie Chrissy Ritter, not yet in the scoring role of her MUHS years, is playing solid defense and is a factor helping Middlebury move the ball up the field, but she is not the only Panther who can run. The Panthers also use that speed to pressure opponents.
“We’ve got good midfield speed. We’re working on good midfield pressure on our ride,” Foote said.
And the Panthers have a solid veteran defense of seniors Heather Marrison and Neile Weeks and junior Hannah Deoul, and a first-year starter in goal, Alyssa Palomba, who Foote said is improving steadily — she made five saves and allowed five goals before being relieved late in Sunday’s game. Cornwall’s Katie Mandigo came in and made one save in a few minutes of action.
“Alyssa, our goalie, is stepping up more and more,” Foote said. “And our defense … is ironing out things that teams are doing against us.”
Foote is also thrilled to have both Ritter sisters aboard, noting that Katie Ritter is rapidly getting up to full speed after entering the lacrosse season hampered by a basketball injury.
“They’re incredible,” Foote said “Every practice Katie’s getting better … (and) Chrissy runs out of the defensive end with the ball and she’s at the other end in a second.”
The Panthers, who reached the NCAA semifinal round a year ago, also have one more ace up their sleeve: Seven of the players in key roles this year are seniors.
“We’ve got a lot of senior leadership out here,” Foote said.
VS. AMHERST, HAMILTON
On Saturday, the Panthers jumped on Amherst early, taking a 5-0 lead on the way to the 13-4 victory despite the Jeffs’ slowdown tactics. Katie Ritter scored the first two, and Souther tallied the third at 9:16 of the first half. Senior middie Michaela Colbert soon afterward found the net twice in 23 seconds as the Panthers took charge.
Once the Panthers had the lead, they controlled second-half possession by winning nine of 11 draws.
Ritter led a balanced attack for Middlebury with three goals; Halle, Pascal and Colbert each had a pair; and Kramer and Souther each recorded a goal and two assists. Palomba stopped three shots, while Middlebury forced Jeff goalie Christy Forrest to make a dozen saves.
Herzog sparked the Panthers’ 11-6 win at Hamilton (5-5, 3-4 league) on Wednesday with three goals, two assists and six draw controls, helping Middlebury to a 13-6 edge in that department. Souther notched a game-high four goals, and Halle chipped in two. Deoul led the Panthers with four ground balls, Chrissy Ritter and Marrison caused three turnovers apiece, and Palomba stopped five shots. Hamilton netminder Kari Koga kept the score respectable with 15 saves.
In all, the Panthers’ play has Foote feeling optimistic about the challenges to come and the postseason beyond.
“If we can fine-tune a few of the littler things, I think we can play with the best teams,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.