May 9, 2009

Perfect Strategy: Middlebury Solves Colby

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Chase Delano (above) scored four of her six goals in the first half, helping Middlebury build an insurmoutable, 7-2 lead over Colby. It took three times, but the Panthers finally managed to figure out the White Mules, and now they get a shot at Hamilton, the defending national champions.
© Trent Campbell

You can only beat your head against a wall so many times.

That was how Missy Foote and her Middlebury staff decided to approach their third attempt at defeating Colby, the two-time NESCAC champion and No. 3 team in the country.

Having lost to the White Mules, 10-9 in overtime during the regular season and again, 17-12 last weekend in the conference semifinals, Foote wasn't about to roll the dice again with her usual game plan when the two teams met in a regional semifinal at Waterville, Maine.

In her 28 years as a lacrosse coach, Foote has managed to pick up some knowledge along the way.

"Bad coaching is doing the same thing over and over again," said Foote after finding out she'd be facing Hamilton in Sunday's regional final. "We lost to them twice, so you can't think you're going to do the same thing and win. It was a no-brainer."

By reining in both the Panther's usual attack-minded offense and defense, Foote guided Middlebury to a stunning, 9-3 victory over Colby on Saturday morning.

Taming the high octane White Mule offense, which averaged nearly 15 goals per game, involved substituting the typical ball-hawking Panther defensive philosophy with one focused on defending the eight-meter.

In addition, Middlebury avoided the temptation of marking Kate Sheridan - perhaps the most complete player in women's Division III - out of the game.

"We didn't focus on Sheridan because we knew they had too many potent attackers. We couldn't focus on one of them, because as soon as we took Sheridan out of the game, it would be somebody else," said Foote. "We sort of tweaked the defense and protected the eight-meter a little bit because we knew they like to feed. And that really, really worked well."

Normally operating with plenty of space down low, Colby was taken off guard, managing goals by Becky Julian and Heather Nickerson - the sixth and third-leading scorers on the White Mule team, respectively - in the first half.

Meanwhile, the typically bloodthirsty Middlebury offense also put the brakes on, burning up plenty of clock while waiting for Colby to take the bait.

"Our other strategy was to only take shots that were pretty high-percentage shots," said Foote. "More than pretty; very high-percentage shots."

Unfamiliar with this new brand of Middlebury stall ball, Colby became flustered, opening vast amounts of space for Chase Delano, who scored four of her six goals in the first half. With the game tied at 2-2 with 21:11 in the opening stanza, Middlebury rattled off five straight markers to take a 7-2 lead into the break.

The tone had been set and the only plausible salvation for Colby in the second half was for the Panthers to get jittery and abandon Foote's ingenuity.

They didn't.

Using up huge chunks of time just clearing the ball and utilizing deft ball-handling on the offensive end by Delano, Sally Ryan and Dana Heritage, Middlebury blunted a ferocious White Mule pressure defense.

"They came out second half hard at us, and that's great in some ways, because it opens up the middle," said Foote. "We only went to goal when we were sure. We'd make an attempt and then come back out."

The plan worked brilliantly, as Colby was held to just one goal in the second half - and Sheridan, who entered the game with 85 points, was shutout - on the way to the 9-3 triumph.

Now awaiting Middlebury is defending champion Hamilton, 8-7 winners over Williams in the other regional semifinal.

Foote was impressed with how the Continentals planned for their contest.

"They've got good strategy," she said. "In fact, the game they played today against Williams was very much like the game we played against Colby, so it will be a battle of wits tomorrow."

Just the way Middlebury likes it.

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