MIDDLEBURY — On Saturday, the Middlebury College men’s lacrosse team took what its players and coach believe is a major step forward with a 12-5 pummeling of visiting Wesleyan, which often rivals the Panthers for the NESCAC title.
In improving the 3-0, the Panthers continued to play stingy defense — they have just allowed 16 goals so far in this young season — and get outstanding work from junior goalie Ryan Deane (14 saves vs. the 3-3 Cardinals).
Critically on Saturday, the Panthers broke through offensively after scoring only 15 times in their first two wins. Eight players found the net and they racked up 10 assists on those goals, three by senior attackman Pete Smith, who also scored twice.
Smith said the Panthers were happier with their output in this game compared to the first two this season.
“Today we just did a really great job of making the defense move and finding the open guy, finding the open space and making the extra pass,” Smith said. “When you get a bunch of assisted goals, that’s great.”
Meanwhile, Deane and the defense — senior Charlie Schopp and sophomores Matt Rayner and Henry Clark started in the back — held Wesleyan scoreless for 41:50 after the Cardinals tied the game at 3-3 at 2:52 of the first period. Meanwhile, the Panthers tallied nine straight goals to turn the game into a rout.
The key sequence came with the Panthers up by 4-3 early in the second period. After Deane made a kick save on a 20-footer from Lonny Blumenthal, the Cardinals controlled the rebound and fed John Froats for a rare uncontested Wesleyan shot. Deane made the point-blank save, but his clear went right to a Cardinal.
Deane quickly made another point-blank stop, this one on Cardinal leading scorer Conor Malangone. This time the Panthers raced to the other end, and Alex Giammarco scored on the break at 9:31 to make it 5-3.
The Panthers then killed a Cardinal penalty (they were three-for-three in that department), and as the man-up advantage expired Rayner won a ground ball and triggered another Middlebury break. This time Smith fed Alex Englert as he cut through the slot, and Englert made it 6-3 at 8:14.
Wesleyan then took a penalty, and the Panthers converted at 6:46 when Tim Cahill gave a high-low feed to Smith out front to make it 7-3.
Panther Coach Dave Campbell said it was no accident that his defense sparked the attack.
“Defensively, we’ve started off on a good note all three games. Our goalie has been excellent, and everything on the defensive end has been clicking,” he said. “We’re aggressive. We’re putting the ball on the ground quite a bit, and that helps in our transition game.”
The first half ended with the score still 7-3, as the Panthers were a bit careless with the ball and replacement Cardinal goalie Colin Campbell (seven saves, five goals-against) fared better than starter Grant Covington (one save, seven goals in 23:14).
In the second half, the Panthers possessed better and extended their lead. Three of their four third-period goals came after a series of passes, and the fourth came in transition. The Panthers made it 12-3 early in the fourth with their fifth assisted goal of the half before Coach Campbell began substituting freely.
Junior attacker David Hild led Middlebury with three goals, and Englert scored twice. Jack Masur, Chris Teves and Andrew Connor each scored once and set up a goal; Jack Balaban and Giammarco each scored a goal; Cahill’s two assists trailed only Smith in that department; and Erich Pfeffer and Stew Kerr also set up scores.
Coach Campbell said the Panthers have always relied on transition offense, and was happy to see five fast-break goals on Saturday.
“That hasn’t quite been there yet in out first couple games, but today it was great. It got us going,” he said.
And Campbell was encouraged to see the improved work by the Panther attack in settled situations.
“They made some better decisions. They made the defense work a little more instead of letting them off the hook,” he said.
Smith said while the Panther attack will be looking to build on Saturday’s improvement, the goaltending and defense might be already close to where it needs to be.
“We’ve got a great goalie in Ryan Deane. We’ve got a lot of faith in him. He makes a lot of big plays for us, stops right on the doorstep,” Smith said. “The defense, they’re all on the same page. They’re great communicators. They have a lot of trust in each other, and they stick to the game plan ... They play as a real cohesive unit.”
Saturday’s win followed a 6-5 win at Springfield on Wednesday. In that game the Panthers took a 4-2 halftime lead on two goals by Connor and one each by Jeff Begin and Englert.
Springfield tied the game at 4-4 early in the third period, but the Panthers made it 6-4 after three quarters on goals by Cahill, from Masur, and Englert, from Smith. They held on for the win as Deane made 11 saves, six fewer than his Springfield counterpart.
Smith said the Panthers were happier with Saturday’s more complete effort.
“This is a big game in terms of the rest of the season,” Smith said. “We weren’t happy with where we were at. We had two wins, obviously, but we knew we could be a lot better. And I think this game will help give us some confidence and some energy, and we can move forward from here.”