April 27, 2011

Hamilton Hopes to Leave Liberty on High Note

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

All-American Sarah Bray and Hamilton have caused fits for NESCAC opponents like Middlebury, appropriate since the Continentals will join the power conference in 2012.

It's springtime again in upstate New York. For the past four years that oh-too-brief season, shining between the still-snowing-on-April-Fools-Day winter and the so-humid-it-melts-your-popsicle summer, has belonged to Hamilton.

Temperatures were in the 70s on Hamilton's campus Wednesday. The Continentals hope to enjoy the weather again next week as hosts of the Liberty League tournament.

Clear skies and an undefeated league record would be a perfect sendoff for the Continentals (13-1), who have won four straight league tournaments and will move next season to the NESCAC.

"They want to go out with a bang," said Hamilton coach Patty Kloidt. "We always view the Liberty League semifinals as the first game of the NCAAs. If our work sets us up to be in a good spot, hosting, we've done a pretty good job."

Hamilton wraps up its league schedule this weekend with one last trip to New York's Capital District to face third place Skidmore (9-6) and second place Union (9-6). The stakes are clear. Sweep this weekend and host the next.

Hamilton has incentive to host. The Continentals have lost on home soil just once since 2006, 12-9 to Cortland in this year's home opener.

That was way back on March 22, the second day of spring in name only. Temperatures were in the low 30s. It was ignited rebirth of sorts for Hamilton, the 2010 NCAA runner-up. Since Cortland, Hamilton has won 11 straight and took down nationally ranked (and future NESCAC rivals) Middlebury and Williams along the way.

"It was a major wakeup call," Kloidt said. "In retrospect, it was great. This is crazy, but I'm really happy it happened. The team completely changed after the Cortland game. They have a different drive. Some mental toughness was lacking in that championship game last year. Nobody likes to lose, but losing can be really good for you."

The key has been defense. No team has reached double figures since Cortland. Hamilton's 6.36 points allowed per game ranks fourth in Division III. Not bad for a team breaking in three new goalies.

Junior Sam Elie, sophomore Nicole Nietlisbach and freshman Dewi Caswell have all started in the cage this season. Lately it's been all Caswell, who has played every minute of the past two games, a 15-6 win over William Smith and a 14-3 win over Rochester, but Kloidt said she's still waiting for someone to truly emerge.

"It's a very competitive situation," Kloidt said. "We haven't had this good problem, as you might call it, in seven years. We've always had someone solidifying the position."

For the the previous three years, the best stretch in Hamilton's history, the position was solidified by Kate Fowler. The transition has been eased by the return of Hamilton's entire midfield and defense.

Midfielder Sarah Bray and defender Lauren Sokol, both All-Americans, make scoring on Hamilton tough from any angle. As does junior defender Meg Pengue, who leads the team with 44 ground balls and 38 caused turnovers.

"They buy into our defensive philosophy and they flourish," Kloidt said. "You have to have kids who want to play defense, who enjoy it and can suck it up. The rules are set up for the defense to fail. They don't get the glory. It takes a special kind of kid to enjoy it."

Expect more defense this week and beyond. Skidmore and Union both average less than eight points per game. All three teams should be in the Liberty League tournament, regardless of where it's held.

If Hamilton gets through its current league, it will likely get a preview of its future league in the NCAA tournament. The NESCAC is doing fine without Hamilton, placing eight teams in the top 10 and potentially sending four to the NCAAs. In the past three years, Hamilton has eliminated a NESCAC team five times, though each game has been close.

"I think [the NESCAC] will be a lot of fun," Kloidt said. "You have to be ready to play every single week. We're looking forward to it. For me, it's like I got a new job, only I didn't have to move."

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