Middlebury spoils field hockey Homecoming

Junior forward Hanaa Malik fights for possession of the ball in the Homecoming game against the Middlebury Panthers. (Evan Sayles for Tufts University)

On a picturesque Homecoming day in Medford, No. 3 Middlebury defeated No. 5 Tufts, 3–2, thanks to a pair of second-half goals. The result snapped the host’s four-game winning streak, which included key wins over No. 6 Amherst and No. 11 Hamilton. On the flip side, the Panthers’ victory avenged their two losses to the Jumbos last season, one of which was the NESCAC championship game.

“I think we’re developing a pretty solid framework, and this weekend helped us take a step forward,” Middlebury coach Katharine DeLorenzo said. “It helped us know where we are, and [to] gauge where we can make progress.”

While many Tufts opponents may be intimidated by the defending national champions’ pedigree, it did not appear to faze Middlebury, which has a decorated history itself: The Panthers have been either the NESCAC champions or runners-up in each of the past six years

“We knew it was going to be a battle,” Tufts junior forward Hanaa Malik said. “They’re a really strong team technically.”

The venerable visitors from Vermont didn’t waste any time in scoring, as sophomore midfielder Marissa Baker slotted a shot past Tufts junior goalkeeper Emily Polinski less than five minutes in. Polinski made the original stop on a Panthers set play, but was unable to control the rebound, which fell to senior forward Annie Leonard. The quad-captain from Darien, Conn. then fed Baker, who staked Middlebury an early lead.

“Obviously, it’s great to score early, but there are some unintended consequences that can follow, especially when you’re on the road and have some green areas in your lineup,” DeLorenzo said.

Sure enough, the home side quickly began to gain momentum. In the 19th minute, Tufts sophomore forward Rachel Hamilton had a breakaway opportunity after intercepting a pass deep in the Middlebury defensive end. Hamilton attempted to flip the ball over Middlebury first-year goalkeeper Abby Furdak, but it sailed just high of the cage.

Tufts continued to apply pressure, however, and the breakthrough came soon thereafter. This time it was a set play rebound that benefited the Jumbos, as senior midfielder Celia Lewis fired a shot on target that Furdak parried away, but only as far as junior midfielder Claire Trilling. Trilling threaded a pass through the crowd to senior forward Mary Travers, who tucked it home for her team-leading sixth goal of the season.

“Mary has incredible stick skills and major grit, major determination,” Malik said. “To see how hard she was working motivated the rest of the team to play up to her level.”

Travers helped put her team in front five minutes later when she flung a tight-angle shot at Furdak. The ball ricocheted off the Panthers’ goalie, straight to the stick of Malik. The Summit, N.J. native’s third tally of the season put the Jumbos up 2–1 just before the halftime whistle.

“We were attacking the ball too much [in the first half], rather than containing it,” DeLorenzo said. “That doesn’t lead to a very stable defense.”

Middlebury responded right out of the gate in the second half, earning three consecutive corners to keep Tufts pinned in its defensive circle. On the third, Baker found Leonard wide open on the left side, and the senior forward calmly fired it into the back of the net to bring Middlebury even.

The Panthers took the lead just seven minutes later, as junior forward Molly Freeman tipped a shot past Polinski. Tufts coach Tina Mattera immediately called a timeout in order to regroup her reeling team.

“When they got their second goal, we beat ourselves a little bit,” Malik said. “We didn’t play with the same confidence…that we usually have.”

The Jumbos controlled the majority of play in the final twenty minutes, as the visitors adopted an extremely conservative strategy. However, the Jumbos were unable to generate many substantive chances, with Furdak (two saves) and the Middlebury defense locking down to preserve the victory.

With the loss, Tufts falls to 7–3 overall (6–1 in the NESCAC) with five games remaining in the regular season, three of which are against conference opponents. Additionally, the result gives Middlebury (9–2, 6–1 NESCAC) the advantage in any tiebreaker scenario.

Because the two teams are currently tied atop the NESCAC standings, the tiebreaker could be crucial. The No. 1 seed would allow the Panthers to host the semifinal and championship games of the NESCAC Tournament, should they advance that far. 

“It lets us breathe a little bit easier [because we] have a really great chance of being in the NESCAC Tournament,” DeLorenzo said. “It’s up to us to what that week is going to look like.”

To make matters worse for Tufts, it still must face No. 10 Williams and No. 17 Bowdoin in the last two games of the regular season. The Panthers, on the other hand, appear to have a softer remaining schedule, as only one of their four remaining NESCAC opponents is nationally ranked. 

Before turning its attention to those games, however, Tufts will host Gordon College (3–8) in a non-conference matchup tonight.