Middlebury steals victory on Senior Day with second-half comeback

Sophomore attacker Emily Games holds off a defender in Tufts' 14–9 win against Bates on April 17. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily

The sun shone down on the Bello Field turf on Saturday afternoon, while the temperature hovered in the mid-50s — perfect conditions for a lacrosse game. No. 6 Tufts (11–3, 7–2 NESCAC) played host to No. 8 Middlebury (12–2, 8–1 NESCAC) in a contest with real ramifications for conference tournament seeding. It was also the last guaranteed home contest for Tufts’ three seniors — midfielder Caroline Nowak, attacker Taylor Meek and attacker Tori Rudnicki — who were honored before the game as part of Senior Day.

There were definitely a lot of emotions yesterday,” Rudnicki said. “This team has given me so incredibly much over the past three-and-a-half, four years. But knowing that, this team is really special and the way that we’ve been playing, this team has the potential to be playing for a lot longer this season.”

Tufts led Middlebury 9–5 at halftime but scored just one goal in the second half en route to a 15–10 loss. The Jumbos have not defeated the Panthers since a 2015 away game. However, junior attacker Dakota Adamec is already looking forward to a potential rematch in the NESCAC tournament.

“[As a first-year and sophomore], I felt like we were kind of on our heels about coming up against teams like Middlebury, Trinity and Amherst, but I’m really ready for the postseason,” Adamec said. “I’m tired of losing in the quarterfinals [of the NCAA tournament], and I know my teammates feel similarly, but we cannot wait to see opponents like Amherst and Middlebury in the postseason.”

Despite the loss, there were clear silver linings for Tufts. The Panthers boast the stingiest defense in the NESCAC, allowing 7.11 goals per game against conference opponents, yet the Jumbos scored nine times in a single half. Tufts’ offense is tied with Middlebury’s for the most potent in the conference, with each scoring 13.67 goals per game.

“We had a stellar first half,” Adamec said. “It was so electric just to watch the attack work so well. The passing was on point. The defense — yes, there were a couple goals that were let in, but they were just a well-oiled machine.”

The Jumbos started the game fast when Adamec converted a free-position shot at the 25:39 mark with Middlebury down a player. Shortly thereafter, junior midfielder Annie Sullivan received a pass from behind the net, contorted herself to slide through three defenders and delivered a strike to the bottom left corner of the net.

Middlebury got on the board with 22:14 left in the first half on a free-position shot from junior attacker Emma McDonagh, after she was knocked down driving toward goal. The visitors didn’t score again for over seven minutes, though, as Tufts extended its lead to 5–1.

Maintaining a blistering pace, first-year midfielder Catherine Lawliss fed a perfect pass to sophomore attacker Emily Games behind the net, leading to a one-on-one opportunity against Middlebury sophomore goalie Julia Keith, which Games converted. Nowak scored the Jumbos’ next two goals, assisted by Sullivan and Adamec, respectively.

The Panthers appeared to be in trouble at the midway point of the first half, down 5–1. Middlebury sophomore attacker Emily Barnard received a good pass from McDonagh, though, and scored on by far the team’s best offensive possession to that point. Less than two minutes later, it was Barnard’s turn to set up a teammate for a goal, as she connected with senior attacker and co-captain Georgia Carroll, who barely beat the shot clock.

Tufts junior attacker Courtney Grygiel netted a tough score, on an assist from Lawless, with 11 minutes left in the half to stop the Middlebury run. Middlebury senior midfielder and co-captain Hollis Perticone answered with a free-position goal at the 8:34 mark to close the score to 6–4.

With their lead cut to two, the Jumbos struck back once again, notching three straight goals. Nowak and Lawliss recorded the first two on assists from Games and Grygiel, respectively. Then, sophomore midfielder Maddie Norman was taken down going to goal, earning a free-position shot. The Glastonbury, Conn. native bounced her attempt past Keith to put Tufts up 9–4 with 5:18 remaining in the half. McDonagh netted a free-position goal of her own to close the deficit to four.

In the second half, the Middlebury kittens transformed into true Panthers. McDonagh forced the issue with her third goal just over a minute into the frame. Just 90 seconds later, Tufts junior goalie Audrey Evers saved Perticone’s shot, but Carroll ushered the rebound into the open net to bring Middlebury within two.

Junior defender Alex White intercepted a pass for the Panthers at 23:23 and immediately launched a three-on-two fast break, which Barnard capped with a goal. After two more Tufts turnovers, McDonagh tied the contest at nine apiece.

With the Jumbos reeling, the Panthers went in for the kill. Another Tufts turnover at the 17-minute mark led to a two-on-one fast break for Middlebury, as McDonagh’s heads-up pass set up sophomore attacker Kate Zecca for an easy goal. It was truly McDonagh’s day, as she picked up her fifth and final goal on a diving wraparound attempt from behind the net minutes laterIn 15 minutes, the Panthers scored six goals to erase a 9–5 deficit and grab an 11–9 lead.

The Tufts offense could not catch a break, as untimely fouls, miscommunications and Keith’s excellent work in goal repeatedly foiled its attempts. Finally, at 13:23, Games broke through with a difficult look that she lasered past Keith. The assorted Tufts parents, alumni and fans present exploded at the team’s first score of the period.

Carroll responded with a goal less less than two minutes to prevent any momentum shift, however, after Tufts failed to clear its defensive zone.

Down 12–10, the Jumbos’ defense locked in, nearly forcing a shot-clock violation out of the Panthers. Roughly 30 seconds later, Evers forced another Middlebury turnover. Tufts couldn’t hold out for longer, though, committing a foul at 8:12, which resulted in a free-position goal for Zecca.

“We talk about momentum a lot at this point,” Adamec said. “Especially with the 12–10 [score], that’s still a point in the game where you can come back. We were talking about trying to come back at that point, but there was no spark, no fight, that was implemented.”

Middlebury junior attacker Jenna McNicholas’ shot found the bottom corner at 7:16 to extend the lead to 14–10. Games attempted to respond for Tufts, but her free-position shot less than a minute later hit the post. The situation became increasingly dire for Tufts with time working against its hopes at a rally. With 4:51 to go, Perticone bounced in the final nail in Tufts’ coffin and a 15–10 advantage.

Nowak led Tufts with three goals, while Games, Lawless and Grygiel contributed three points apiece. McDonagh’s five goals paced both teams, Carroll scored three and Barnard, Zecca and Perticone each added two goals for the visitors. Both goalies recorded five saves and, while Middlebury collected more ground balls (18–12) Tufts controlled 14 draws to Middlebury’s 11.

Many alumni returned for Senior Day, and the atmosphere was celebratory on the Jumbo sideline before the game.

“I got to meet a few older alumni, like 2013, 2014 and 2015 alumni,” Adamec said. “You hear them chirping on the sidelines, and I personally love hearing that stuff because it brings me outside of myself and brings me back to having fun with it. In the game it’s very serious, but I heard Brigid Bowser (LA ’16) calling me out on the sideline, and I was laughing.”

Similarly, the seniors were able to reflect on their time with the lacrosse team.

“It’s not the outcomes of specific games or specific plays that I remember when I look back,” Rudnicki said. “It’s the small moments in hotels on road trips, the inside jokes that have graduated three classes but still hang around. It’s those moments off the field with my team that are just the fondest memories for me.”

Tufts will face No. 13 Bowdoin (11–3, 6–3 NESCAC) on Wednesday in its final regular-season game before the postseason begins. The 7 p.m. contest is crucial to determine seeding and home-field advantage in the NESCAC tournament, as the third-place Jumbos currently sit one spot above the Polar Bears in the conference standings.

“It’s going to be a battle because it’s another NESCAC team,” Adamec said. “But hopefully we brush off what happened on Saturday and just focus on the game Wednesday.”