Champs! Panther field hockey rolls to yet another NCAA title

THE MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE field hockey team poses with its championship trophy after Sunday’s 1-0 NCAA Division III final victory over Franklin & Marshall. The Panthers won their third straight title and fourth in five years after controlling play in both of their Final Four games in Manheim, Pa. Photo Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE JUNIOR Erin Nicholas was named NCAA Division III field hockey tournament Most Outstanding Player. She assisted the Panthers’ semifinal game-winning goal, played both forward and midfield, and helped the Panthers defend opponents’ penalty corners. Photo Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics

SENIOR CO-CAPTAIN MARISSA Baker scored the game-winner in Sunday’s NCAA Division III field hockey final win over Franklin & Marshall and was named to the all-tournament team. Photo Courtesy of Middlebury Athletics

MIDDLEBURY FRESHMAN KATIE George, the Panthers’ leading scorer this season, knocked in the only goal in Saturday’s NCAA Division III field hockey semifinal win over Salisbury and was voted to the all-tournament team. Photo by Mark Palczewski
It wasn’t until we got to the NCAA tournament we were like, ‘All right, guys, the end goal is another trophy. But it is such a rewarding, gratifying feeling every single year knowing how much work and effort goes into every single practice. — Middlebury senior Allison Denby

MANHEIM, Pa. — In winning its third straight NCAA Division III field hockey title — and fourth in five years — this past weekend Middlebury College left no doubt which team was the class of the field. 

The games were close: In Sunday’s final in Manheim, Pa. at the Spooky Nook Sports Complex, the 21-1 Panthers defeated Franklin & Marshall, 1-0, and they eliminated Salisbury by the same score on Saturday.

But the scores don’t reveal that Middlebury dominated possession and allowed each team just one shot on goal. 

During Sunday’s post-game press conference, senior defender/midfielder Allison Denby explained the Panthers’ dedication to defense.

Denby said it starts with the forwards harassing opposing defenders and continues with midfielders reading passing lanes before the ball can get anywhere near Middlebury’s back line of seniors Olivia Green and Sophia Peluso (of Cornwall) and junior Meg Fearey, and sophomore goalie Grace Harlan (who made one save in each game). 

“It’s every single player on the field playing defense,” Denby said. “It starts with the forwards. And the middies do it too, and then the defense does it. So I would say the defensive unit definitely had a great weekend. And that’s only because everyone on the field had a great weekend defensively. It started on the top, and it made our jobs a lot easier.”

Of course, it also makes the back line’s work easier when their teammates are pinning opponents in the opposite end of the field.

Even when senior forward Marissa Baker gave Middlebury the lead against F&M late on Sunday, the Panthers kept attacking — just as Coach Katharine DeLorenzo wanted them to.

“I’m really proud of the team for understanding that continuing to play offense is what put the lid on that game,” DeLorenzo said.

What enables Middlebury keep winning at such a high level? After all, F&M came in at 20-3 and Salisbury at 20-1 before being overrun by the Panthers. 

Talent, for sure. Junior Erin Nicholas did not score this weekend, but was named the tournament’s outstanding player for her two-way efforts. Green, Baker and freshman Katie George, who scored Saturday’s game-winner on a feed from Nicholas, made the all-tournament team. But Denby said a season’s worth of attitude and daily effort made the difference. 

“We would never say, oh, let’s win another national championship. It wasn’t until we got to the NCAA tournament we were like, ‘All right, guys, the end goal is another trophy. But it is such a rewarding, gratifying feeling every single year knowing how much work and effort goes into every single practice,” she said. “There was definitely a lot of hard work that went into it.”

Baker took the time line back further, to June when the Panthers received summer workout packets. 

“We know that every single girl no matter where they are in the country is putting in the work to get ready for the season, so come August we’re in great condition,” Baker said. “From there on out it’s just connecting on the field.”  

Asked the secret of the program’s success, DeLorenzo gestured at the players on the press conference podium. 

“Surround yourself with great people, really capable people, people who choose to spend their time wisely working at a common goal, people who enjoy having fun, people who love listening to music,” DeLorenzo said. “If that’s not steps one through 10, or one through 24, we have 24 people on our team, it always starts and it always ends with the people.”

On Sunday the Panthers soon took control, and Baker had two chances on first-period penalty corners: One went just wide, and Diplomat goalie Christina Seery denied her from five yards out on another. Late in the period F&M had two corners, but their only chance, a long shot from Erin Coverdale, went wide left.

In the second quarter each team had chances. Nicholas dribbled down the middle of the field for nearly 60 yards and took a reverse-stick shot about six yards that went just wide right. 

In the final 30 seconds, the Diplomats intercepted an ill-advised clearing pass through the middle. It led to a cross from the left that a cutting Darby Klopp one-timed back toward the left side that Harlan did well to deny with her right pad for a critical save.

The Panthers had two near misses late in the third period. Nicholas stole the ball and bolted in with two minutes remaining, but Seery (three saves) got a piece of her shot. On a penalty corner with a minute remaining, the Panthers worked the ball back to inserter Isabel Chandler at the left post, but her flick over the sprawling goalie sailed high.

The Panthers broke through at 6:16 of the fourth. Chandler carried down the left side and found Baker just inside the circle. Baker fired low toward the left side. Her shot deflected of a defender’s stick high into the net. That would be all Middlebury would need, although Coverdale did fire wide right on a late penalty corner. 

On Saturday the Panthers dominated the first three quarters against Salisbury and scored at 6:27 of the third. The play started with a laser of a 40-yard pass from Green down the middle that hit Nicholas in stride in the offensive end. Nicholas sent the ball toward George in the middle of the circle. A defender deflected the pass, but George adjusted, spun counterclockwise, and fired the game-winner inside the left post

In the fourth, Middlebury (13 shots in all) earned four penalty corners in the early minutes, but Salisbury held. The Sea Gulls then launched all four of their shots in the final 7:51. On a penalty corner with 3:29 left, Harlan charged off her line to save Salisbury’s Camryn Dennis’ low, hard shot, the Sea Gulls’ last bid of the game. 

Denby said watching the Panther forwards finishing off the final is the moment that will stick with her. 

“I was getting excited, and I could feel the butterflies in my stomach,” she said. “And finally I looked at the clock, and there were five seconds left, and I just couldn’t stop myself, and I started running towards my goalie, and, sorry, it was presumptive to run, but I just felt so elated and proud of every single person on this team.”

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