For a brief moment, the Panthers thought they had clinched the national title at the end of regular time.
There was confusion on the ice when Gustavus Adolphus’ Molly McHugh poked a rebound into the net at the end of the third period. No time remained after the scramble in front of Middlebury’s goal, but had the puck crossed the goal line in the nick of time?
After ten excruciating minutes of deliberation, the referees rightly ruled that the visitors had scored with just one-tenth of a second remaining. The game, tied at two points apiece, was headed to overtime.
“You talk about a swing of emotions. I’m hugging [Assistant Coach Ashley Solerno] on the bench, half of our team is on the ice going to celebrate with the goalie,” Middlebury Head Coach Bill Mandigo said postgame. “And then all of a sudden, it’s a goal, and we have to go back in the locker room.”
But as any great team does, the Panthers bounced back from the heartbreak in overtime. The team played an uptempo brand of hockey and found their rhythm offensively, outshooting the Gusties, 7–0. It seemed like only a matter of time before the Panthers found the winner, and sure enough, with 13:17 expired, Ellie Barney ’21.5 delivered the decisive blow.
For the sixth time in program history, the Panthers were national champions.
“I have no words for it. Being on that ice, watching Ellie put away that goal… everything you work for, it comes to fruition,” senior captain Madie Leidt ’22 said. “Not many people are able to say they’re 27–0–0 and we are — it’s an incredible feeling.”
A back and forth match
Middlebury entered the championship game after defeating Elmira College, 3–2, on Friday, March 18. On the other side of the bracket, Gustavus Adolphus cruised past Plattsburgh State in a 5-1 win. The No. 1 seeded Panthers earned the right to host the final two rounds of the tournament.
The game opened with back-to-back power plays for the Gustavus Adolphus Gusties, but the Panthers weathered the storm. With 13:44 gone in the first, Jenna Letterie ’22.5 broke the deadlock, scoring on a breakaway — the Panthers’ first shorthanded goal of the season.
In the second stanza, the Gusties’ pressure continued to mount, culminating in a goal from junior forward Clara Billings with 7:30 left on the clock.
Strong goaltending from Sophia Merageas ’24 and the Gusties’ Katie McCoy kept the game firmly tied at 1–1, until Leidt scored her 19th goal of the season with just 2:47 remaining in the third period. To all watching, Leidt’s goal looked set to be the game winner.
But the Gusties didn’t capitulate, pulling their goalkeeper and owning a 6-on-4 skating advantage after a delay of game penalty from Eva Hendrikson ’22.5.
In the final seconds of the game, a scramble began in front of Middlebury’s goal, with Molly McHugh of the Gusties finding the loose puck and sliding it home.
For a moment, the Panthers looked incredulous — their perfect season was thrown in jeopardy in the most dramatic of circumstances. But if this year’s team has taught fans anything, it’s that they play to the very end. Before overtime, Leidt skated over to Merageas, encouraging the rookie goaltender to keep her head up — the game wasn’t over yet.
“There were a few teammates coming up to me and saying don’t worry, either way it goes we’ll get another one,” Merageas said. “We’re going to come back stronger.”
From the onset of overtime, the Panthers looked the hungrier team. Middlebury controlled possession and darted toward every puck, putting immense pressure on the Gusties’ back line. And after 13 minutes of overtime play, the Gusties finally cracked.
Eva Hendrikson ’22.5 started the play with a deft pass to her fellow captain Ellie Barney ’21.5, who controlled the puck and charged into the offensive end. Barney’s initial bid at the Gusties goal was blocked, but she reacted quickest to the rebound, firing it past McCoy and into the back of the net.
Barney was soon swarmed by a sea of white and blue. Kenyon Arena’s 2,120 fans — the most spectators to ever attend a women’s hockey game in the venue — jumped to their feet and sent reverberating cheers around the arena.
“You lose the national championship with one-tenth of a second left, and you come out and play your best hockey in overtime,” Mandigo said. “They played hard, they got pucks to the net, and I couldn’t be happier for this group for everything they’ve done all year long.”
Individual and team accolades
With the win, the Panthers (27–0–0) became the first ever team in Division III women’s hockey history to complete an undefeated season, and equaled a Middlebury record for wins in a season. They also tied an NCAA record for home wins with 18 straight in Kenyon Arena.
At the individual level, Letterie, Leidt and Merageas were named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team, with Merageas also taking home Most Outstanding Player honors. The rookie goalie recorded 29 saves in the national championship game, displaying composure beyond her years.
After the game, Bill Mandigo was asked how this year’s team ranked among his 33 at Middlebury.
“You’ve got to put it right there,” he said. “This team moves to the top of the list. It’s been a special, fun year that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
“The reason the goal counted was because they wanted to play more, they didn’t want the season to end,” he said.
Blaise Siefer ‘23.5 is a sports staff writer.
Siefer is majoring in Sociology and minoring in Spanish.
For three semesters in 2021 and 2022, Siefer served as Senior Sports Editor. He also co-founded a Middlebury sports recap podcast, PFL Weekly, which is released on all major streaming platforms every Tuesday.
Siefer is also the Co-Founder and Co-President of Middlebury Club Soccer.