MIDDLEBURY — There’s no question graduation hit the Middlebury College women’s lacrosse program hard after the Panthers won the NCAA Division III and NESCAC playoff titles a year ago.
Among the nine seniors who graduated were seven who started in the NCAA championship game, numbering among them five of the team’s top six scorers, including Middlebury native Chrissy Ritter, and goalie and Cornwall native Katie Mandigo, the Final Four MVP.
But the cupboard isn’t exactly bare this spring: The starting low defense of senior Jessie Yorke, junior Evie Keating (the backer in the Middlebury zone) and sophomore Alex White returns, as does starting senior defensive midfielder Delaina Smith and senior attacker Mary O’Connell, the Panthers’ leading point-getter a year ago with 36 goals and 43 assists.
Three more players return who played in the NCAA final: sophomore attacker Emma McDonagh and sophomore middie Sara Dicenso, both of whom started for the 3-0 Panthers in a 15-6 win over NESCAC foe Tufts on Sunday, and sophomore middie Susanna Baker, who came off the bench on Sunday.
Coach Kate Perine Livesay is happy with her team, which started only four seniors vs. Tufts, despite its inexperience.
“We’re still young, but doing pretty well for starting so many sophomores,” Livesay said. “They’ve all worked so hard between last season and the start of this season. Having the experience of seeing a senior group that was so committed and talented (last year) motivated them in the offseason.”
Livesay expects the Panthers to become more efficient on offense with experience, deeper at midfield as freshmen work their way into the lineup, and more consistent on defense as they shake off the rust.
In fact, she expects Middlebury — who received the No. 1 preseason ranking due to their 2016 crown — to be right back in the postseason hunt.
“It’s still so early to know, but I think we’re definitely a top-five team,” Livesay said. “Everything is kind of wide open this year it seems.”
Against Tufts (1-1) on Sunday, the Panthers sparked early in taking a 7-1 lead in the first 20 minutes. McDonagh and fellow sophomore attacker Jenna McNicholas scored two early goals apiece.
Tufts cut the lead to 8-4 at 4:28 before the break, but the Panthers closed the half on a 3-0 run. Junior Georgia Carroll, returning after missing almost two full years with tears to her ACL, netted the first; freshman Kate Zecca buried an O’Connell feed for her first career goal; and O’Connell made it 11-4.
In all, eight Panthers scored in the half, and nine in the game. Livesay said any Panther in the offensive zone is dangerous.
“That part is very exciting, and pretty much all our middies are scoring threats,” she said.
Both teams’ offenses slowed as Middlebury outscored Tufts, 4-2, in the second half, which offered both good news and bad news for Livesay. The good news, she said, was the defense started to strike the right balance between showing aggressiveness and the care necessary to cover cutters inside the zone. Against St. Lawrence last week and in the first half on Sunday, Livesay said at times the defenders were too aggressive.
“I felt like we see-sawed with not having enough accountability on the interior cutters,” she said on Monday. “Yesterday was about trying to strike that balance a little bit better and not over-extending and putting ourselves at a disadvantage.”
A positive throughout was sophomore goalie Kate Furber, who made seven saves in her first start this season after getting the win in relief of freshman Julia Keith vs. St. Lawrence. Furber has an outstanding save percentage of 0.632.
“Julia Keith is a really good goalie, but the institutional knowledge Furber has with our defense and where people ought to be, and just her ability to communicate and direct the back is just, we’re finding, really valuable,” Livesay said.
At the same time, the attackers did not communicate well in the second half as Tufts began to switch defensive looks, and as Livesay continued to sub a bit of inexperience surfaced.
“That has been the biggest challenge, just getting younger players’ voices activated,” Livesay said.
O’Connell finished with two goals and four assists, while McNicholas (three goals), McDonagh and Perticone (two goals and an assist each) and Carroll (a goal and two assists) also contributed. Keating scooped six ground balls, and McDonagh added five. Kate Mackin scored three for Tufts, and goalie Audrey Evers stopped 12 shots.
At St. Lawrence on March 8, the Panthers trailed the 1-3 Saints early in the second half before rallying for a 13-7 win by scoring nine straight goals.
The Saints took a 6-4 lead 39 seconds into the second half on a Kayla Schmalz strike, but sophomore middie Henley Hall, McNicholas and McDonagh scored two goals apiece in the Panther surge.
Perticone notched three goals and an assist to go along with eight draw controls. Hall, McDonagh, O’Connell and McNicholas each scored twice, and White picked up four ground balls. Keith made one save in 34:20, and Furber allowed one goal with five saves in the final 25:40. Schmalz led the Saints with three goals, and Cricket Wemyss made eight saves.
Livesay said the contest was a good learning experience because the Saints played a high-pressure defense and a physical style that helped her young team adapt to college-style lacrosse.
“I feel like we got so much out of that St. Lawrence game,” she said.
After three games, the Panthers, who play at NESCAC foe Wesleyan on Saturday, have amassed advantages of 56-43 in ground balls, 42-24 in draw controls, 39-24 in caused turnovers, and 92-44 in shots.
So, as Livesay says, although the Panthers do have to “do a better job of taking care of the ball” and “work through the little kinks” offensively, if they do maybe no one will remember Middlebury graduated all those seniors.
“For us, I think on a good day, we’re battling for (No.) 1 or 2,” Livesay said. “If we’re not playing our best, that’s going to drop us pretty quickly. That’s the challenge for us. We have the ability to beat anyone.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]