May 13, 2011

Middlebury Women Look to Knock Off Top-Seeded Trinity

by Mark Macyk |

Sally Ryan is a "'give me the ball, I'll figure it out' kid," said Middlebury head coach Missy Foote.

© Trent Campbell

There's an old saying in Vermont that Middlebury head coach Missy Foote shared with her team last week: The hay is in the barn.

She elaborated for all those born outside the Green Mountain State.

"The hay's baled," Foote said. "You've mowed it all. Now you can rest."

That's why the Panthers didn't panic after being eliminating in the NESCAC quarterfinals. They put in the work during the regular season, the really hard part was over. The tournament resume was strong. Middlebury beat Stevens and Catholic, and three of its four NESCAC losses came by one goal to NCAA tournament teams.

So in the week between Middlebury's 13-12 NESCAC tournament loss to Tufts and the selection for the NCAA tournament, the Panthers rested. They practiced enough to keep sharp, but not so much that it seemed they were practicing for nothing. Then they waited.

Foote has coached the Panthers for 34 years, won five NCAA championships and reached 14 straight final fours from 1994 to 2007. She said she had never heard a team react the way her current squad did when Middlebury's name was called Sunday night.

"There's never been a louder scream," Foote said. "It was joyous. It brings a smile to my face even now."

The Panthers were back at it Monday. Tuesday was a light practice. Wednesday they beat visiting Ithaca 14-7 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The uncertainty of the previous week didn't carry over. Middlebury jumped out to a 5-1 lead and never trailed. Stephanie Gill led the way with five goals, Sally Ryan had three goals and one assist and Chase Delano had one goal and three assists.

"It was a fun week," Foote said. "At this point we're just crossing our T's and dotting our I's. It's not an exam."

Maybe not an exam, but a tougher test this weekend, as the Panthers take on top-seeded Trinity in Hartford. Trinity received a bye into the second round, defeated Colby 7-1 in the NESCAC title game and beat Middlebury by one goal on April 16.

The NESCAC was Division III's most competitive conference this year -- all five teams to enter the tournament won their first0round matchup. Middlebury took it a step further with its non-league schedule. But the Panthers scheduled smart.

Rather than heading down to somewhere like Salisbury or Washington and Lee while it was still snowing in Vermont and Middlebury didn't have many practices under its belt, the Panthers held their big non-league opponents for the middle of the season. When they knocked off Stevens 17-7 on March 29 and came from behind to beat Catholic 13-12 two days later, Middlebury already had wins over Bates, Wesleyan, Babson and Connecticut College to build from.

"That turned out to be the difference," Foote said. "It's always a gamble, whether it's too early to put that in front of your team. You have to be careful."

The gamble paid off. Close games are likely this weekend, and the Panthers have squeakers on which to draw. They trailed 12-9 to Catholic with two and a half minutes left. Ryan scored four unassisted goals in a row, the final one with three seconds on the clock to win it.

"She is a 'Give me the ball, I've got it figured out' kid," Foote said.

Ryan leads the team with 57 goals and 71 points, but she doesn't go it alone. Sophomore Ellen Halle has 25 goals and 16 assists and classmate Margaret Souther has 21 goals and eight assists. Junior Lily Nguyen has a 9.27 goals against average and her .513 save percentage ranks 17th in Division III.

While they're not looking at this weekend as an exam, the Panthers might have a crib sheet. Middlebury faced the three other teams playing in Hartford -- Trinity, Bowdoin and Stevens -- during the regular season.

Said Foote: "That's the fun of what this tournament is."

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