Women’s hockey loses to Midd, still qualifies for NCAAs

Last weekend, women’s hockey made the long drive up to Brunswick, Maine for the third time in six weeks. This time, it was to take on Middlebury as part of the NESCAC championship tournament. The Ephs earned a spot in the Final Four with a 3-0 victory at home over Wesleyan a week ago. Unfortunately, the Ephs were unable to advance past the semifinals, dropping a close, 3-2 match to the Panthers on Saturday.

Middlebury moved on to the championship game on Sunday to recapture the NESCAC title with a decisive 4-0 victory over Bowdoin, who had advanced with a win over Colby. That was the Polar Bears’ first loss of the season.

The Middlebury victory may have been of more than passing interest to the Ephs, as they learned on Sunday that they had been selected to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. Three NESCAC teams were selected, and Williams’ strong performance against the Panthers played a role in helping the Ephs gain the last at-large berth.

The Ephs and Plaatsburg were competing for the final slot. Although Plaatsburg had beaten Williams earlier in the season and has a better overall record, the Ephs were granted the berth due to a higher winning percentage against common opponents, a more challenging schedule and a better record against other tournament teams.

The Ephs travel to second-seeded Manhattanville on Saturday. The Ephs have traditionally played Manhattanville early in the season and have never defeated the Valiants, who won the ECAC title this year. The Ephs lost 3-2 in their first meeting of the year back in November. However, Julia Karoly ’03 believes that the Ephs have a good shot in the tournament: “I believe that we can beat anyone out there that we are paired with.”

The Ephs finished up the NESCAC regular season 16-8-2 (11-4-1 in the NESCAC), good enough to put them in third place behind second place Middlebury and first place Bowdoin. This weekend was critical for Williams, as a first place finish in the tournament would have assured the team of a NCAA tournament berth, and a strong second place performance would have substantially improved their prospects for an at-large bid.

Despite the lopsided overall record in contests between Middlebury and Williams – the Panthers are 42-2-2 against the Ephs – the teams’ more recent contests, one tie and one victory for each side in the last three games, have become decidedly more competitive, and the women looked forward to an exciting game on Saturday.

According to Karoly, the team was very focused on the Middlebury game, affording as it did an oppurtunity for the Ephwomen to recapture the triumph of last year’s stunning victory over the Panthers and prove that Williams could defeat anyone that they might face in the NCAA tournament. The women seemed to take these motives to heart, as they put together a very strong performance against Middlebury.

The Ephwomen looked jittery early on and Middlebury took advantage as Amber Neil scored at 13:03 of the first period on a power play goal after Ellissa Popoff ’06 was called for interference. However, the Ephs came back quickly, as Gigi Stender ’05 scored with an assist from Molly Wasserman ’04 at 18:18 of the first.

An early flurry for the Panthers earned them nine shots in the first period, but the Williams defense clamped down in the second, holding Middlebury to just two shots. The Eph offense was also strong, as they got off 10 shots against Middlebury goalie Kate Kogut. However, despite also having an early 5 on 3 power-play advantage, the Ephs were held scoreless for the entire second period. Meanwhile, the NESCAC player of the year, Middlebury’s Angela Kapus, netted her first of two goals for the game at 12:36 of the second.

The Ephs came out strong in the third also, but were unable to find quite the same offensive spark that they had in the second period. Kapus put the Panthers up 3-1 with a goal past Monelle Quevillon ’03 at 13:26 of the period. Williams did not give up, however, and had several close opportunities to put the puck in the to the Middlebury net.

Unfortunately, the puck just didn’t bounce the right way for the Ephs, and even with a late goal from Melissa Vandermyn ’06 at 19:46 of the third, they were unable to come back from the two goal deficit. According to Carrie Miller ’06, the Ephs “could have played better, maybe,” but they have nothing to be ashamed of in their performance against Middlebury. It was one of their strongest games of the year and could easily have gone either way.

The Ephs ended up losing two of three to Middlebury this year, but both losses came in one-goal games. The Panthers’ complete domination over the Ephs appears to be a thing of the past.

In other news for the team, Wasserman and Popoff were both selected to the NESCAC all-conference second team. Wasserman was honored for leading the Ephs in goals and points for a third consecutive year despite being hampered by injuries late in the season. Popoff anchored an Eph defense that was third in NESCAC, allowing just 1.46 goals per game. NESCAC coaches voted on the honors. Said Popoff of her selection, “Sometimes, as a defender, it’s hard for me to know how much I’m really contributing. It is definitely nice to get this kind of recognition.”