Before this season, no NCAA DIII field hockey team had ever won four straight national championships.
That all changed on Sunday, Nov. 21 when the Panthers defeated Johns Hopkins, 4–1, to capture the national title in Hartford, Conn. The Panthers have now won the national title in every season since 2017 (except the 2020 season, which was canceled due to Covid-19).
Over the course of two sunny days in Hartford, Middlebury first defeated Rowan University, 4–1, and then Johns Hopkins in the national final. Here is how it happened:
Semi-Final: Middlebury 4, Rowan University 1
Middlebury dominated play against Rowan University in the national semi-final, beating the Profs, 4–1.
Seven minutes into the game, Erin Nicholas ’22 weaved through two defenders and passed to Sadie LeStage ’23, who redirected the pass to Katie George ’23. The attacker took two shots on goal before slotting home the rebound in the bottom right corner of the cage.
Play continued on both sides of the field with two attempted goals by Rowan which were blocked by Panther goalie Grace Harlan ’22.5. The Profs did manage to get on the board when NFHCA Region IV Player of the Year Kristiina Castagnola reverse chipped the ball over Harlan and into the upper corner of the cage.
With eleven minutes left in the first half, Nicholas earned Middlebury a 2–1 advantage with her 25th goal of the season.
George added to Middlebury’s lead six minutes into the second half after receiving a pass from Meg Fearey ’21.5 in the middle of the field. George carried the ball into the circle, beat a defender and then lifted the ball above Rowan’s goaltender. With just two minutes to go, Nicholas scored another tally off a feed from Amy Griffin ’23.5, sealing the team’s 4–1 victory.
Final: Middlebury 4, Johns Hopkins 1
The next day, the Panthers (21–0) faced off against Johns Hopkins (22–0) in a familiar position: the national championship.
Just over eight minutes into play, Audrey Lazar ’23 carried the ball into the circle and fired a shot on frame, which George collected and tipped into the cage. Five minutes later, Nicholas buried a penalty stroke, giving the Panthers a 2–0 lead.
After the half, the Blue Jays took possession of the ball for the better part of the third quarter. During a penalty corner with about thirty two minutes left on the clock, Middlebury goalie Grace Harlan ’22.5 kicked away a Johns Hopkins shot.
Middlebury increased their lead to 3–0 just over eight minutes into the second half. Lazar took a shot which the Blue Jays’ goalie kicked away, but George was there once again to knock the ball in. It was George’s fourth goal of the weekend and the second time Lazar and George worked to score a goal as a tandem.
During a penalty corner with twelve minutes left in the game, Nicholas netted her 65th and final career goal. Joan Vera ’22 inserted the ball and Nicholas made a direct shot into the cage.
Erin Nicholas ’22, who ranked first in the NESCAC with 28 goals this fall, pushes the ball forward in the national championship game. (Courtesy of Will Costello)
The Johns Hopkins offense had a jolt of energy with three minutes left in the game, scoring a goal on Harlan as a Johns Hopkins player tipped a loose ball into the net during a chaotic scramble. The final score ended, 4–1.
As the clock ticked down from 15 seconds, the players on the sidelines prepared to rush the field. As the buzzer rang, a swarm of players in navy gathered in a huddle to celebrate their fourth consecutive national title. Music rang out over the loudspeakers and fans turned to one another for hugs and high fives, all joining in on the celebration.
Once blue and white streamers were shot out of a cannon and trophies were distributed to the team, honors were given out to players who stood out among all the athletes who played in the tournament. Griffin, Vera, George and Nicholas were all given spots on the all-tournament team. Nicholas was also handed the tournament’s most outstanding player award.
Once the ceremony concluded, it was time for Head Coach Katharine DeLorenzo to place Middlebury’s name on the champion’s spot of the bracket. Needless to say, the crowd went wild and the team once again gathered in a group hug, celebrating their achievement.
After the game, DeLorenzo gathered with Vera, Lazar, Nicholas and George for a press conference, all of whom were wearing shirts distributed by the NCAA that read “CHAMPIONS.”
In her opening remarks, DeLorenzo said, “I’m exhausted and happy,” as she laughed with the players beside her who nodded their heads in agreement. “Every year the bar of Division III field hockey is being raised and it’s really fun to be a part of it,” she continued.
DeLorenzo spoke to the strength of the entire team, even those who didn’t feature during championship play. She added that it is those players, who work to “be Rowan or Johns Hopkins” during practice, who push the starters to improve their play.
Nicholas pointed out that the team works incredibly hard to “never be satisfied with what we have on the scoreboard.” Lazar echoed that sentiment. “The thing our team did phenomenally this year was never taking our feet off the gas,” she said.
When asked about setting the record for four straight national championships, DeLorenzo said: “Consecutive doesn’t really hold any meaning for me, necessarily, but when you bring the people into the story, that’s where it holds so much meaning. Consecutive means that a certain group did this over and over again. I think it speaks to the people who have done it.”