By ANDY KIRKALDY
MIDDLEBURY — In a Tuesday game sandwiched between two critical NESCAC contests, the Middlebury College men’s lacrosse team took care of business against visiting Rensselaer to win, 11-6, and move to 8-1.
Senior middie Mike Stone tossed in six goals, tying the career high he set in Saturday’s dramatic 14-13 win at Bowdoin. And the Panther defense, which features three new starters, and goalie Pete Britt (13 saves) allowed a season-low number of goals.
On this coming Saturday at 2 p.m. Tufts, also 5-1 in NESCAC and now ranked No. 10 in NCAA Division III, will visit No. 4 Middlebury. Bowdoin, then No. 13, was undefeated in NESCAC until Stone’s goal with 1:04 to go gave the Panthers the victory.
Given the games immediately before and after Tuesday’s and taking into account the playing conditions — wind blew a few snowflakes across Youngman Field — Coach Dave Campbell accepted that the Panthers didn’t fire on all cylinders.
Especially when the temperature dropped in the second half, turnovers rose for both teams, and they struggled to move up the field crisply— they combined to succeed on only 32 of 47 clearing attempts, 18 of 25 for Middlebury.
“They’re a pretty good team. They play in a good league, so we’ll take it. I don’t think it was the cleanest game, by any means. We just did enough to win,” Campbell said. “We didn’t execute everything we wanted to do, but we did enough.”
What did encourage Campbell was his defense, which he said did a better job of handling picks and forcing players to their weaker shooting sides. The 5-5 Red Hawks only scored twice in the second half after the Panthers led at the break, 6-4.
“I thought, in the second half particularly, we started executing our fundamentals, which we’ve been stressing since Day One. And that last half was the best job they’ve done all year at that,” Campbell said. “And Pete Britt made the saves he needed to make.”
The Panthers scored three times in the first 3:10, one from Tom Petty and two from Stone, one set up by Chris Teves. But their offense stagnated, and RPI’s Austin Ray went solo late in the quarter to make it 3-1 after one.
Two quick Panther strikes in the second made it 5-1. David Hild scored a man-up goal from Skyler Hopkins, and Stone picked a corner at 12:47 to chase starting RPI goalie Ryan DeJordy (one save). Angelo Luppino, who fared better (eight stops, six goals against), stepped in.
RPI chipped away. Ray went solo again to make it 5-2, and after Stone converted from long range at 8:31, tallies from Brian Orecchio on a behind-the-net feed and Paul Cerone on a solo move made it a two-goal game at the break.
After Panther faceoff man Dave Campbell prevailed to open the second half (he helped Middlebury win 11 of 18), Hopkins made it 7-5 at 14:35.
Sloppy play by both teams followed, possibly as the chill took its toll. The Red Hawks struck at 3:55 on another strong move by Cerone, their leading scorer, to create some doubt on the outcome.
Campbell won the faceoff again, but Luppino denied Stone. Campbell picked up the ground ball, however, and scored from a sharp angle to make it 8-5 at 2:41.
Soon afterward Panther middie Zack Harwood picked off an errant RPI clearing attempt at midfield, raced in and set up Petty, who made it 9-5 at 1:20.
As the quarter wound down, Luppino denied Hild, but Harwood again picked off an RPI clear. Stone carried in and hit the post. But the ball bounced back to him, and Stone buried it at 0:12 to make it 10-5. Britt then denied a point-blank bid at the third-quarter horn, and the lead was a safe five goals after three periods. Cerone and Stone each scored in the fourth, with Teves setting up Stone.
Against Bowdoin on Saturday, the Panthers led, 10-3, in the first half and then saw the Polar Bears take a 13-12 lead early in the fourth quarter. Hopkins tied the game with 7:27 to go before Stone netted the game-winner. Britt (13 saves) then preserved the result with a late save as Bowdoin fell to 7-2, 4-1 NESCAC.
Despite the wins that keep on coming, Campbell said his team must continue to improve if it is to win the league and make an NCAA tournament run.
“Every game, we haven’t consistently executed our fundamentals, both offensively and defensively ... So every game it’s something we have to go back and work on again. Instead of spending time working on some new things and installing some new things, we need to go back and re-teach the things we’ve already taught,” he said. “So we just need guys to understand what we want out of them and just make the simple plays and execute the fundamentals.”
If the Panthers defeat Tufts, they will go a long way to securing home field for the NESCAC tournament. But Campbell said it won’t be easy.
“It’s a huge game. It doesn’t get any bigger than this,” he said. “They’re very good offensively, and we have to play our best defensive game against them.”