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Monday, Jun 24, 2024

Reflecting on four and a half years of Middlebury athletics

My best friends and I celebrate with kicker Carter Massengill ’20 after football won the 2019 NESCAC title. From left: Captain Rudolph ’23.5, Marco Fengler ’23.5, Carter, Blaise Siefer ’23.5, Eli DiBari’24
My best friends and I celebrate with kicker Carter Massengill ’20 after football won the 2019 NESCAC title. From left: Captain Rudolph ’23.5, Marco Fengler ’23.5, Carter, Blaise Siefer ’23.5, Eli DiBari’24

The first Middlebury sports game I watched was on Sept. 14, 2019. 

On that fall day, the football team beat Williams College 17–13 after All-NESCAC quarterback Will Jernigan ’21.5 rushed into the endzone with just 30 seconds left to seal the victory. 

I still remember the pregame bike ride over to Alumni Stadium with my new friends from Allen Hall. We didn’t know the Middlebury team well — heck, we barely knew each other. But our excitement for our first college football game was through the roof.

Middlebury has a reputation for strong athletics. 

Later that season, I was once again at Alumni Stadium when Middlebury beat Hamilton, 14–7, to win the 2019 NESCAC championship — the next week, they became the first-ever NESCAC football team to go 9–0. My friends and I stormed the field in excitement alongside President Laurie Patton and her dog, Suka.

I tell the story of Middlebury football’s 2019 season to preface a larger trend: Over my four and a half years at this college, our varsity teams have been nothing shy of dominant. It has been a sportswriters’ dream.

Since my first semester in fall 2019, our athletic teams have won 16 NESCAC championships, seven national championships, and one individual national title (Stan Morris, men’s tennis, 2022). Field hockey (four), women’s ice hockey (one) and women’s lacrosse (two) have all brought home NCAA titles, with six other separate squads also winning the NESCAC. 

I’ll repeat: 16 NESCAC championships, seven national championships and an individual national title in four and a half years. Lest we forget, multiple athletic seasons during this time were entirely lost due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

I’ll always remember the moment during spring break in 2022 as my friends and I watched women’s hockey in the national championship. Gustavus Adolphus scored a game-tying goal with 0.1 seconds left to send the game into overtime, but Middlebury didn’t back down. The Panthers would fire seven shots on the Gusties before an effort from Ellie Barney ’22 cleared the Middlebury bench. Pandemonium. 

Other notable memories include field hockey’s sixth consecutive national triumph this past fall, baseball’s come-from-behind victory against Hamilton in the 2022 NESCAC championship and women’s lacrosse’s 23–0 season last spring.
When you first visit Middlebury, it is hard to imagine that our college would be a dominant force in athletics. We’re tucked in the Champlain Valley, surrounded by mountains, woods and lakes, a far cry from traditional athletic powerhouses in New York City or Los Angeles. The state of Vermont doesn’t even have a single top tier professional sports team. 

How our college developed, and has maintained, such an esteemed athletic reputation is beyond me. I write the following line not to preface some sort of conclusion, but rather the contrary: to leave it open ended. 

What do you believe makes Middlebury athletics so unique?

Surely there’s not one answer. But there is something to be said about the people that Middlebury attracts, and the culture that we’ve created surrounding our athletics. 

Let me explain: Here are three anecdotes from my time as a sportswriter for The Campus.  

I’ll start with the most recent. In late November, I drove 75 miles west from my home in suburban Boston to Amherst College, to watch men’s soccer face the Mammoths in the NCAA quarterfinal. It was a cold Sunday morning, right before Thanksgiving, and I wasn’t expecting too big of a crowd. On the walk down to the field, I was surprised to see an entire pack of men’s soccer alumni, warming up over hot cocoa before the game started.

I beat them to the sideline, and when they eventually joined me, they saw my Middlebury sweatshirt and invited me to stand with them. I don’t play varsity soccer here, but I am a Panther, and that was more than enough. As I chatted with the alumni, I learned that many of them rerouted flights home for Thanksgiving to cheer on Coach Alex Elias ’08 and his team. They said they wouldn’t miss it for the world. No such contingency existed on the host’s sideline. 

Another example of Panther culture is Emeritus Dean of Advising Karl Lindholm ’67. I was first introduced to Karl in 2019, when Dean Scott Barnicle connected us over email. I told Scott I wanted to be a sports journalist, and he introduced me to Karl, who wrote a sports column for the Addison Independent.

Since then, Karl and I have met regularly for coffee to discuss Middlebury sports. He particularly loves baseball and basketball, and seldom misses a game. Last year, over breakfast at Shiretown, Karl outlined his plan to take a road trip to Alabama to watch the baseball team play a series of preseason games. 

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That’s over 1,200 miles each way, in case you were counting. 

Rarely do you see a Division III school with a fan of such faith. There are other Karls in this town, too, who dedicate their free time to supporting our athletic teams. Just walk into Pepin Gymnasium for a basketball game at this time of the year –– you’ll see them filling the stands. 

The final story I’d like to share is about PFL Weekly (Panthers for Life), the podcast that I co-founded in 2022 with three of my best friends: Marco Fengler ’23.5, Captain Rudolph ’23.5 and Eli DiBari ’24. The podcast was a week-in-review show about Middlebury sports, and each week, we interviewed a student-athlete — or athletes — who had performed particularly well that weekend.

We recorded two seasons of PFL Weekly, from Feb. 2022 to May 2023. You can still find the show on Apple Music or Spotify. 

As you can imagine, Middlebury athletes are busy people, expected to compete weekly while keeping up on schoolwork and other extracurriculars. We always sent out our interview requests on Sunday night before recording the show on Monday. 

Over the course of the podcast, we probably asked about 40 athletes to be interviewed, and not a single one declined. Every Middlebury athlete we asked to speak with, regardless of their age or status on the team, enthusiastically agreed to make time to chat. 

When Covid-19 restrictions loosened, we even asked athletes to come into our recording booth in the Hepburn basement, which is where we had some of our most enjoyable conversations. The athletes often showed up straight from practice. We had a blast. 

It has been a pleasure writing and speaking about sports for The Middlebury Campus throughout my time here. I would’ve never expected to write about so many NESCAC and national championships, or so many All-American athletes. 

I still struggle to comprehend how Middlebury athletics continues to raise the bar on the national level. But I do think the culture and character of our athletics is a driving force. Our off-the-field approach has on-field results. 

I am overwhelmed to be graduating in just over a week, but I know I’m a Panther for life. And I’m pretty damn lucky to say that. 


Blaise Siefer

Blaise Siefer

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.