May 3, 2012

Even in Tougher League, Hamilton Back in Playoff Hunt

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

Hamilton's senior backline of Meg Pengue (above), Lauren Sokol and Josie Jones has held strong to help the Continentals make a postseason run.
© Scott McCall

It was like some sort of cruel social experiment. What would happen if you took Hamilton, which won the NCAA championship in 2008 and returned to the title game two years later, out of the comfort of the Liberty League and threw them into the NESCAC?

Then up the ante. Test their faith with some losing streaks. Have them lose by two goals or less seven times. For science. Surely we'd learn something about Hamilton and the NESCAC.

We did. First, the NESCAC is even tougher than you think.

"I laugh when people say the NESCAC is overrated," Hamilton coach Patty Kloidt said. "Come play in it. We didn't understand it. It's one thing to know it's going to be dog fight, another thing to live it."

We learned something about Hamilton, too. The Continentals (7-9) went through their toughest season ever, losing more games in one year than they had in the previous five regular seasons combined. But through it all, Hamilton persevered and reached the NESCAC tournament as Division III's most dangerous seventh seed.

Saturday Hamilton turned its season around and advanced to the NESCAC semifinals with a 9-4 victory at Colby (13-2), which had lost just one game all season.

"Nobody had us winning that game," Kloidt said. "Colby has a very good team with a very good coach and you have to play a near-perfect game. We were able to pull that off. It's a long road trip after a tough week academically. I give credit to my team."

Hamilton will meet host and top-seed Trinity (14-1), another team with just one loss, on Saturday in the conference semifinals.

In retrospect it shouldn't be a surprise that Hamilton will be present this weekend. The experiment was done. The Continentals were back in familiar territory. They're used to playing NESCAC teams in May. They'd met Colby in the NCAAs in three out of the past four seasons.

"Now we're back to some normalcy," Kloidt said. "Once we're in the postseason nothing else matters."

That doesn't mean this weekend will be easy. Trinity (14-1) bounced back from its only loss of the season with a 15-4 first-round romp of Bates. Amherst (12-3) defeated 2011 NCAA runner-up Bowdoin, 9-7, and will face Middlebury (11-3), which knocked off Tufts, 12-8, in the other semifinal.

"All three of those teams are playing well," Kloidt said. "Trinity losing to Amherst [last week] is probably not good for us. They're probably mad. That's a team on a mission, too. Obviously we have to win to stay alive."

That Hamilton is even in this position is a testament to its senior leadership. Members of Hamilton's five-person senior class played major roles in the Continentals 2010 trip the NCAA championship. That season seemed far away at times this year, when Hamilton endured two three-game losing streaks.

Tough losses have a way of chipping away at a team's spirit, leading to infighting and bickering. Hamilton never succumbed to those temptations.

"It was uncharted territory," Kloidt said. "I think this group of seniors is the reason we're still in this. Their leadership and ability to maintain our team chemistry is huge. They probably don't even realize that. They're probably looking at it as 'Wow, I can't believe we lost so many games.' It's easy to be a winner. It's easy to celebrate. True leadership shows up when you're faced with adversity and losing. I'm so impressed with these seniors and how they've held the team together. There were many teams that would have started to fray."

Senior attacker Libby Schultz leads the team in assists (26) and is second in points (49). Midfielder Ashley Allen has appeared in every game, 14 off the bench, and provided nine goals and two assists.

The senior backline of Lauren Sokol, Josie Jones and Meg Pengue, who have played together their entire careers, helped keep Hamilton as a top-50 defense despite the struggles. Sokol leads the team with 32 ground balls and ranks second with 44 draw controls. Pengue leads the team with 27 caused turnovers.

Despite the struggles -- a week in March when they lost three games by a combined five goals, back-to-back one goal losses last week, five total one-goal losses -- the Continentals wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's funny the talk with them," Kloidt said. "They're looking back and they've said to me a couple of times, 'These games, even though they've been tight, are so much more fun.' For years we've watched the NESCAC. You always see the score and see how much they're beating on each other. Win or lose, it really challenges you. It's fun to be a part of it."


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