With less than 20 seconds on the clock on Sunday, Nov. 24, Scarlett Kirk ’14 was battling 25 mph winds and a Johns Hopkins defender with her back to the goal and seemingly nowhere to go. In one quick motion, the Middlebury forward’s turn opened up space to tuck away the ball past the outstretched Hopkins keeper in the back of the net. Kirk turned with arms open to welcome her celebrating teammates and the program’s first ever spot in the NCAA Final Four in San Antonio, Texas.
“The whole play is a bit of a haze, but I remember getting the ball and thinking that this was my chance to end this game before overtime, and I got lucky that it was a good shot that beat the keeper,” Kirk said. “I was so cold and exhausted at that point, I was so happy that the game wasn’t going into overtime. I still can’t believe that it happened and that we’re actually going to the Final Four. It’s been our dream ever since I’ve been at Middlebury.”
Just a day earlier, on Saturday, Nov. 23, the Panthers emphatically announced themselves as serious NCAA contenders with a 5-1 win over Misericordia, in a game that included a hat trick from Kirk.
In the beginning, Middlebury looked uncomfortable playing on the largely unknown turf field, with the Panthers having a hard time finding feet and controlling passes on the fast surface. It didn’t take long for Middlebury to grow into the game, generally dictating play and limiting Misericordia’s chances on goal.
Kirk netted her first goal of the game in the 38th minute after an impressive Hannah Robinson ’16 one-touch pass toward the striker to knock it past the keeper.
Middlebury doubled its lead in the final minutes of the first half with Molly Parizeau ’15 her first goal of her Middlebury career. Kirk was yet again instrumental, earning a corner after chasing down a long ball and her shot with deflected behind. Ali Omsberg ’15 quick pass found Parizeau at the near post for a header and 2-0 lead before halftime.
Middlebury came out even stronger in the second half, with two goals in the first five minutes of play.
Robinson played a weighted ball down the left hand side to carve open space to find Jamie Soroka ’16, who cut the ball back to find Kirk open in the middle of the box. In a tight space, Kirk volleyed the ball into the corner of the net.
Just four minutes later, Kirk earned her hat trick after a masterful series of passes from the Panthers. Quick, one-touch passing didn’t allow Misericordia to close down Middlebury fast enough. Robinson found Julie Favorito ’14 at the top of the box, where the tri-captain one-touched a through ball that Kirk converted despite tumbling to the ground and her hair falling out of its ponytail.
The Panthers continued their dominance on corners, with their final goal of the game coming from a header by Sarah Noble ’14 after a corner from Carter Talgo ’15 in the 58th minute.
Middlebury then began to slow the game down, with patient build-up and relaxed play. The Panthers were briefly punished for this, after a consolation goal from the Cougars in the 71st minute. Middlebury was caught sleeping on the corner, as a shot from Megan Lannigan was deflected into the goal.
The dominant performance wiped away the painful memories of last year’s NCAA Regional final’s 1-0 loss to the Cougars.
“I thinking going into the game we were just happy how far we had already come, but the fact we had that history with them made us want to win that much more, and I think that showed in how we played,” Noble said.
On Sunday, Johns Hopkins and Middlebury braved brutal conditions of harsh winds and a temperature (without wind-chill) of 20 degrees. The Blue Jays benefited in the first half with the wind at their backs, posting a 9-0 shot advantage.
Hopkins’ first real chance of the afternoon came just two minutes into the game after being awarded a free-kick, but saw their effort go just over the crossbar. Neither team threatened again until the 20th minute when Hannah Kronick and Kelly Baker worked a give-and-go, but Kronick was unable to handle the return pass.
Middlebury’s best chance of the half came in the 23rd minute when Soroka rocketed down the left hand side, but tried to play a pass to Kirk in the middle instead of shooting. Chances were few and far between for Middlebury, as the Blue Jays kept pushing the Panthers back.
Johns Hopkins finished the half with the last real chance, as goalie Elizabeth Foody ’14 produced a top notch save, catching Baker’s fizzing shot in mid-air.
The Panthers came out in the second half looking to make amends for their poor first half performance.
In the 61st minute, Middlebury was denied a penalty kick after Robinson’s shot hit the hand of a Blue Jay defender, the ball instead deflected behind for a corner. Parizeau saw her shot denied, her rebound falling to Robinson who’s follow up attempt rattled the cage.
On the other end, Kronick continued to pile on the pressure, first seeing her effort from 20 yards out stopped by Foody and just three minutes later launching a shot over the goal.
With overtime looming, Middlebury began to crank into gear, pushing forward. On their last offensive threat, Favorito touched a challenged ball ahead to Kirk for the senior forward to net her 16th goal of the season and the 47th of her career.
Middlebury’s final push is reflective of a season that has seen the majority of the Panthers’ goals scored in the final five minutes.
“One of my professors came up to me after the game and said that something in the last five minutes seemed to literally just switch with us, but I think that’s just how our season’s being going, we’ve won so many games in the last couple minutes,” Lindsay Kingston ’14 said. “We talk about how it has to be a 90 minute game and play through it all and I think that’s really helped us beat many teams.”
Favorito thinks this weekend’s performance showed that Middlebury’s spot in the Final Four is no fluke.
“I think beating a big name team like John Hopkins that we have heard about for years really boosted our confidence in terms of playing teams like Trinity-Texas who we’ve never played before but have heard a lot about,” Favorito said. “We proved to ourselves that we are up there with the nationally ranked teams. Not sure what to expect but I’m so excited to get on a plane with this team, it has been a dream of the seniors for a long time.”
Middlebury will face second ranked Trinity University on Friday, Dec. 6 in the National Semifinal. Despite the significance of the game, head coach Peter Kim insists that nothing will change in the team’s preparation.
“We’re going to continue what we’ve been doing all year: take each game one at a time,” Kim said. “We’ve never expected anyone to be a weak opponent so there’s not going to be any surprises when we play against a good team. I don’t think we even want to play against a weak team at this point.”