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March 5, 2009

Bringing Back the Middlebury Magic

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Missy Foote has been keeping a close eye on Heidi Howard this week.

Over the course of 28 years at Middlebury, Missy Foote has won five Division III national titles and appearead in two other championship games. But it's been four years since either, so Foote is bringing back players from seasons past to toughen up the latest edition of the Panthers.
© Middlebury Athletics

Even though Howard is one of Foote's assistants on the fifth-ranked Middlebury women's lacrosse team, the Panthers are playing at Bates on Saturday. And that means there's the potential that state secrets could be passed in Lewiston since Howard is engaged to Bobcats head coach Brett Allen.

Well, not really. Actually, Foote just likes playing matchmaker.

"The joke is: if you need a spouse, come work for me," laughed Foote. "I introduced Missy Hopkins, my longtime assistant, to her husband and Heidi met Brett at a camp that I ran last summer. They are going to get married next December."

Joking aside, Foote isn't even close to worrying about Howard's allegiance. A three-time All-American in both field hockey and lacrosse at Middlebury - back when Foote was the coach of both sports - Howard helped the Panthers win two national titles in lacrosse and one in field hockey.

The woman bleeds Middlebury blue.

In addition, Foote has overheard some of the phone conversations held by the future bride and groom.

"You should hear the trash-talking going back and forth between the two of them," she said.

Besides being a loyal assistant, Howard is nice to have around because she reminds Foote - who enters her 28th year at Middlebury - of the way her players used to be. Not necessarily in talent level (the Panthers are rarely starved for studs), but in the strong-willed nature that was a hallmark of the Middlebury program as it was winning five national titles between 1997 and 2004. Now that the Panthers haven't played in a title game in four years, Foote thinks her players may have become, well, soft.

With a little encouragement from her spouse, Foote decided to do something about it.

"My husband was getting sick of me coming home and complaining last year," said Foote. "I'd asked him, ‘Where are the Heidi Howards and Kully Hagermans anymore?' He said, ‘Why don't you have them come in and talk to your team?' So we put together an alumnae speaker series where we have former players coming in and speak about mental toughness or a variation of that theme."

Calling it a series might be a tad ambitious - it currently consists of Kully Reardon (née Hagerman) ‘99, who spoke on the first day of practice, and Jessa Martin ‘00, who is now a sports psychologist and scheduled to speak later this season. Foote is already pleased with the impact.

Reardon, who is currently the Babson head coach, connected in just the way her former coach had hoped.

"Kully talked about how to be a good teammate. Does that mean supporting your teammates all the time or does that mean sometimes you tell your teammate to work harder, or focus more, or not slack off or sulk? She gave them an example of her sulking one year after a game and a teammate saying something to her about how she can't do that," said Foote.

"She said it was a huge realization for her. That's really what a teammate is: a person that made her realize that she needed to be more accountable and needed to do things differently. And I've already seen it translate into more focus in practices; I've noticed they are holding each other accountable."

Instilling this type of culpability on a team is a delicate proposition, as different players respond to different types of impetus, but Foote has reached a point where she feels regaining mental toughness is the last hurdle to returning the Panthers to dominance.

Foote knows her team will only get better on the offensive end as the year goes along and she already loves her defense.

It's the intangibles that will determine how far they go.

It starts on Saturday at Bates. The Bobcats spooked Middlebury last year in a 16-12 Panther victory by using a pressure defense, but Foote is ready this year. And she'll expect Howard to shelve her connection with Allen for 60 minutes.

While Missy Foote may help her assistants find spouses, she also expects them to crush their future husbands if they're standing between Middlebury and a victory.

That's mental toughness.

Other Interesting Games...
No. 3 Franklin & Marshall (1-0) at No. 7 Washington & Lee (3-0), 1 p.m., Saturday - This game is always close. Last year, the Dips managed to win 7-4, and in their championship year of '07, F&M only beat the Generals, 11-9 - the second-closest margin of the season. W&L is already battle-hardened with the win over Catholic, so this has upset written all over it.

No. 2 Salisbury (5-0) at No. 11 Catholic (1-1), 3 p.m., Sunday - The Gulls have been chugging right along, and even convinced the pollsters to jump them over F&M in the last poll. We know they're legit, but we'll have a better idea where they are after they play a tough Cardinals squad.

No. 4 Lock Haven (1-0) at No. 4 Limestone (3-0), 3:30 p.m., Friday - These two teams are tied in the weekly rankings and there's no better way to solve that dispute than a head-to-head showdown. More importantly, this game will give the winner a huge leg-up in the race for one of the two South bids.

M: No. 5 Cabrini (3-0) at No. 11 Lynchburg (3-1), 1 p.m., Saturday - Lynchburg is trying to regain its confidence after the Salisbury debacle and have managed to win two straight. If the Hornets can find a way to beat the Cavs, they'll have weathered the storm. In its early games, Cabrini is looking solid in all phases.

M: Limestone (1-1) vs. No. 2 Le Moyne (1-0), 6 p.m., Saturday (Baltimore, Md.) - With the Saints plummeting out of the rankings with a loss to Belmont Abbey, this inter-regional game has lost a bit of its luster, but don't count Limestone out of the tourney hunt.

M: No. 2 Gettysburg (1-1) vs. No. 3 Cortland (2-0), 1 p.m. Saturday (at Massapequa, N.Y.) - Much like the game above, the shine is off this one with Gettysburg getting demolished by Stevenson on Wednesday. However, the Bullets are still a good team, so this match-up is worth a trip to the Island.

M: No. 11 UC Santa Barbara (3-2) at No. 16 Sonoma State (3-2), 1 p.m., Saturday - This game used to be a must-see event in the MCLA, with the highlight coming in 2005 when the Gauchos and Seawolves played for the national championship. Despite being in separate conferences now and not holding their typical rankings, these teams will always have a history, making for an entertaining affair.

M: No. 8 Ithaca (3-0, NCAA) at No. 1 Chapman (5-1, MCLA), 1 p.m., Sunday - As mentioned in my Club Canvas notes, this tilt always causes a debate.  Regardless, it should be a decent game, but Chapman will likely be without LM's Preseason Player of the Year Mike Clayton.

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