#LMRanks: No. 4 Middlebury's Final Countdown (WD3)
2013 record: 18-3 (9-1 NESCAC)
Top Returner: M Liza Herzog (Sr.)
Palomba (6.80 GAA) replaced a former IWLCA Goalie of the Year in 2013 and helped lead the Panthers back to the final four.
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There’s still snow blanketing the lacrosse field at Middlebury. They’ll plow it Saturday morning. It’s February in Vermont. No sense cleaning it off Wednesday when a few more inches will likely come on Thursday.
If it snows this weekend, the Panthers will play inside. But no matter what, this Saturday, for the first time since last year’s Final Four, Middlebury women’s lacrosse will practice as a team.
“There’s nothing better,” said Panthers coach Missy Foote. “We’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting. It’s been this anticipation and it’s finally here. No one is more excited than the coaches to get out the door - unless it’s the players.”
For Middlebury, the team with the second-most women’s lacrosse championships in Division III history and one that’s reached the Final Four for the past two seasons, this is a special time of year.
The Panthers prowl in the mighty NESCAC, undoubtably Division III’s toughest conference, and one whose teams begin their season late and do not play fall ball. The league has allowed its teams to start a week earlier this year, but the Panthers still won’t play a game until March 1, when they host Tufts. For comparison, Salisbury, which has knocked the Panthers out of the past two NCAA tournaments, will have played two games by then.
But the late start never hurts Middlebury. If anything it keeps the Panthers from being burned out come May. Last year, they lost just three games, by a combined three goals, to the final two teams playing in the NCAA tournament - Salisbury and Trinity (twice).
Middlebury graduated its top three scorers, but hopes to offset any lossses by fast-breaking more. The Panthers have the personell for it, beginning on defense, a unit which ranked seventh in Division III last year, and one that will once again be as good as any in D3. Goalie Alyssa Palombo stepped in as a junior and recorded D3's fourth best goals against average (6.80) last year. Lining up in front of her will be a stingy defensive unit led by captain Hannah Deoul (36 ground balls in 2013).
On offense, All-American Liza Herzog (team-high 63 draw controls in 2013) teams with 2012 NESCAC rookie of the year Katie Ritter (25 goals, nine assists, 29 ground balls in 2013), to ease the impact of the graduations. Ritter’s sister, Chrissy (16 goals, 17 ground balls, 17 draw controls), and Laurel Pascal (30 goals, 22 ground balls, 38 draw controls) give the offense some strong younger returning players. As for Middlebury’s first year players, several will be in the mix for starting spots, but Foote can’t know for sure with because, of course, she hasn’t yet seen them play.
Middlebury will play as tough of a schedule as any team in the country. In addition to the NESCAC, which features five teams ranked in LM’s preseason Top 20, they’ll visit RPI and Franklin & Marshall in March. Then in April they’ll host Cortland on April 10, two days before a home NESCAC showdown against defending conference champion Trinity.
So while the Panthers are getting a late start, they will hit the ground running. It's the only way to play in the NESCAC. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love that,” Foote said. “I love that the NESCAC sort of allows players to be students and have other interests, and play another sport or go abroad, and still have a desire to play the game at the top level.”
Lacrosse Magazine will continue its 2014 college lacrosse preview throughout January and into February, with team-by-team breakdowns of the top teams in NCAA Division I, II and III men's and women's lacrosse. Follow the countdown at LaxMagazine.com/LMRanks and on twitter at #LMRanks.