MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s lacrosse team opened and closed Saturday’s home game vs. NESCAC rival Wesleyan strong, but the Cardinals hit the Panthers with a 12-3 mid-game run on the way to a 17-15 victory that was also Middlebury’s third straight close loss.
The 2-3 Panthers entered last week ranked No. 10 in NCAA Division III, but that was before Saturday and a midweek 11-10 loss at No. 5 St. Lawrence. Their earlier setback came at No. 3 Tufts, 16-13.
Wesleyan improved to 4-1. The Cardinals were just outside the top 20 in the March 13 poll and are now likely to move up.
Meanwhile, the Panthers must regroup quickly. Plattsburgh visits on Tuesday at 4 and NESCAC rival Bowdoin will show up on Saturday at 1 p.m. And a date with No. 2 R.I.T. in Syracuse, N.Y. looms on March 28.
After 16 turnovers and four failed clears — two in the fourth quarter as the Panthers were trying to rally — on Saturday, Coach Dave Campbell said his team lacks time to enjoy a learning curve against its tough schedule and must find a way to harness its potential.
“Big picture, that’s what I’ve been saying to the guys after the last two games and after today, but at some point you’ve got to start learning those lessons and applying them,” Campbell said. “At some point it better click. So that’s what we’ll do going forward is learn from this. Hopefully by playing all these tough teams early that’s going to help us down the road.”
The Panthers outshot the Cardinals, 44-35, but at times had trouble getting good looks on Wesleyan goalie Ted Bergman (10 saves) against a tightly packed Cardinal zone. At the other end, the Cardinals earned high-percentage shots against first-half goalie Will Ernst (fives saves, 10 goals against) and freshman Will Perry (six saves, seven goals against) in the second half.
The turnovers hurt the defense, too, Campbell said.
“We got some stops, and then we turned it right back over, didn’t clear it, and they made us pay, like good teams do. It was just a really sloppy day for us clearing the ball after we got stops. And, yeah, we didn’t get enough stops,” he said. “That’s what a good team does. They’re going to score some goals and make you pay for your mistakes, and I thought they did a much better job of that than we did today.”
The teams traded punches in the first period. After a solo Joey Zelkowitz put Middlebury in front, the Cardinals took advantage of Panther turnovers to go on a 3-0 run on goals from Taylor Ghesquiere, Tom Dupont and Harry Stanton over a span of 2:24.
But Middlebury responded by controlling the draw (the Panthers won 24 of 34) and went on a 7-1 run that stretched 4:11 into the second period. Jake Schneider scored twice and A.J. Kucinski once in the first period before Ghesquiere tied the score late in the opening period.
Then Middlebury reeled off four straight goals to open the second, two in transition, Zelkowitz from Henry Riehl and John Simms from John Gould. Parker Lawlor tossed in a bomb from the top of the box, and freshman Danny Jacobs capped the run with a man-up goal on a thread-the-needle feed from Kucinski.
Then things went south. The Cardinals went on 6-1 run to lead by 10-9 at the half, with Ghesquiere scoring twice and Harry Stanton assisting two transition goals. Those scored in the final 1:27 erased a Panther lead created by a highlight reel goal: Eric Rogers dove in transition to tap a ground ball to Kucinski for the conversion at 1:54. The final Cardinal goal from Andres Rodriguez came at 0:02 after a Panther turnover in the waning seconds.
Wesleyan kept scoring after the break, although the Panthers twice cut the lead to one, the second time at 6:26 when Riehl tossed in a bomb to make it 12-11. But the Cardinals then went on a 4-0 run over the next 4:02, with two goals apiece from Colin Uyeki and Stanton.
Gould scored in the final minute, from Simms, but the Panthers were down four, 16-12, entering the fourth. Bergman stopped man-up bids from Jacobs and Kucinski early on, and at 9:18 Stanton, from Ghesquiere, made it 17-12.
Riehl fed Schneider and scored himself in the next minute to make it 17-14 at 8:24, but two turnovers and two Bergman stops on Riehl sealed the Panthers’ fate despite a flurry of late Cardinal penalties that led to a late Gould goal.
Stanton’s six goals and two assists paced Wesleyan, while Ghesquiere (four goals and an assist) and Uyeki (three goals, two assists) helped the Cardinals.
Riehl (two goals and three assists), Schneider and Gould (three goals and assist each), and Kucinski (two goals, two assists) led the Panthers. Jake Madnick and Zelkowitz scooped six ground balls apiece, while Madnick won 18 of 23 faceoffs. Kucinski and John Jackson each added five ground balls.
In all, eight Panthers scored, and Campbell believes offensive balance will be a strength as his attackers and middies learn to play better together.
“We have a lot of guys who are threats to score. We’ve got a lot of talent,” he said. “The longer the season goes and the more we’re running our stuff, we’ll start executing better … We have the pieces in place to do it, for sure.”
Campbell also believes in his midfield and defense, but also noted the team is more than a quarter of the way through a 16-game regular season — or, as Yogi Berra once said, “It’s getting late early.”
Campbell said the Panthers must start to realize their promise soon.
“The potential of this team is off the charts. Whether we realize that potential is the biggest question for me going forward, and for us in general that’s our challenge,” Campbell said. “So it’s exciting, but there needs to be some urgency with this group. So we’ll get back at it tomorrow and see where that urgency is.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]