Women’s Lacrosse | Panthers bounce Jumbos in first round of NESCAC tournament

A week before its first-round NESCAC tournament game against No. 7 Middlebury on Saturday, the No. 14 women’s lacrosse team had reason for optimism. Although they fell to the Panthers 15-6 earlier in the season, the Jumbos were coming together at the right time, and they looked poised to repeat last year’s tournament upset by poaching the Panthers at their own stadium.

But Middlebury had other ideas, and it turned on the jets in the second half to run away with a 12-8 win that leaves Tufts waiting and hoping for a  very improbable bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Jumbos were only forced to play the Panthers because of Tufts’ overtime loss to Bowdoin on the last day of the regular season. But in many ways, the game was a microcosm of the Jumbos’ whole year, as struggles against the top half of the NESCAC proved to be their undoing time and time again. Those problems have been largely the result of inconsistent play, as Tufts can perform extremely well for stretches but then suddenly allow opponents to go on extended scoring runs.

There was perhaps no better example all season of that type of mercurial play than in the first half against Middlebury. After pulling the score back to 3-2 with 18:11 remaining on a goal by sophomore attackman Gabby Horner, the Jumbos seemed to fall apart, allowing five unanswered goals and going into halftime down 8-2.

“The last 20 minutes of the first half pretty much determined the outcome of the game,” sophomore midfielder Kate Applegate said. “Middlebury went on a five-goal run and managed to take our attack out of our practiced plan to break their defense.”

However, just when it seemed that Tufts might be the victim of a blowout loss, it stormed out of the gate in the second half with four unanswered goals to reduce the deficit to 8-6. Junior attackman Kerry Eaton scored twice during the streak, adding to her team-high total of 38. 

In its quest for a conference record eighth NESCAC title, Middlebury fired back. A goal by sophomore midfielder Liza Herzog pushed the score to 10-6, and junior attackman Margaret Souther finished off the scoring with 6:33 remaining.

“Middlebury clearly started to get nervous when we got within two goals of them, showing they knew we weren’t about to give up the game and could pull into the lead like we did last year,” senior tri-captain defenseman Katie Lotz said. “They started to stall pretty early, and unfortunately they were able to hold onto the ball long enough to keep the lead.”

Tufts once again struggled on the offensive end and ended the game with fewer total shots and free position shots than Middlebury. Those issues were the result of poor ball control, as the silly turnovers that have hindered the Jumbos all season reared their ugly heads again. Middlebury also dominated Tufts at the faceoff X. Nonetheless, the Jumbos looked much better overall than they have at many points this season and kept fighting back even when the Panthers went ahead.

“One of the good things about the game yesterday was the fact that it was completely different from the first time we played Middlebury this season,” Lotz said. “It shows that we improved so much this season, in pretty much every aspect of the game … We also practiced their attack against our defense, so we were ready for how they were going to play and it wasn’t as much of a surprise as last time.”

With the loss, the Jumbos dropped to 9-6 on the year and 5-6 in the NESCAC, having lost every conference game they have played against teams with a winning conference record. Although the NESCAC is probably the deepest Div. III conference in the country, its lack of quality victories puts Tufts on the outside looking in for an at-large NCAA bid.

“Unfortunately, the chances of an NCAA bid are slim,” Lotz said. “Overall, I think this year was great, even if it didn’t have the ending outcome that we had hoped for, because we still had so much fun as a team this season. We all worked as hard as we could yesterday, and the whole season, so while not making it as far as we wanted to is unfortunate and upsetting, knowing we gave it our all is a great thing.”

Tufts was ranked in the top 15 nationally for the entire season and at one point was as high as first in the NESCAC. However, since No. 19 Hamilton upset No. 6 Colby in the first round of the conference tournament, the Colonials may have taken the inside track toward gaining the at-large bid over the Jumbos.

“Losing to Middlebury yesterday was definitely the hardest moment of the season,” Lotz said.

Whatever the selection committee decides, the final verdict on the Jumbos’ season will certainly be mixed. It was another winning season overall, but for a program used to competing with the NESCAC’s best, the quick tournament exit will have to be seen as a disappointment.

“Unfortunately, there really isn’t much of a chance that we’ll get an NCAA bid,” Applegate said. “It’s the end of the season for us, which is a very hard idea to get used to. We’re graduating eight seniors who have a huge presence on the team, and they’re going to be missed.”