Middlebury's improbable run toward the NESCAC Championship came up just short, as the sixth-seeded Panthers fell 9-8 to second-seeded Wesleyan on Sunday in Lewiston, Maine. The Cardinals scored the contest's final four goals for the victory, extending their winning streak to 17-straight games. Wesleyan earned NESCAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with its first title since 2009. Middlebury finishes the season at 9-9.
All three opponents in the conference tournament for the Panthers were ranked in the top 15 nationally. Middlebury knocked off #13 Amherst in the quarterfinals and top-ranked and undefeated Bates on its home field in the semis, before falling to the eighth-ranked Cardinals. This was the second-straight trip to the finals for the Panthers and their 11th appearance overall.
The opening quarter was defensive minded, as Wesleyan's Taylor Ghesquiere collected the game's initial score on a man-up situation with 6:15 on the clock. The Panthers tied the game with 2:44 remaining, when A.J. Kucinski turned and fired a shot from five yards out after taking a feed from Parker Lawlor. Kucinski helped Middlebury take a 2-1 lead in the final seconds, setting up Danny Jacobs for a tally from close range.
The Panthers pushed the advantage to two goals with 2:12 expired in the second stanza when Henry Riehl rifled a shot into the top-right corner of the net. After a score by Christian Barker brought the Cardinals to within 3-2 with 11:25 on the clock, Middlebury held Wesleyan scoreless the rest of the quarter. Matthew O'Neal and Nick Peterson added goals for the Panthers in the middle stages of the frame, before Wes Quinzani scored in transition in the waning seconds. Middlebury goalie Charles Midgley made a key stop on a Cole Turpin scoring bid and Quinzani raced up the field on the clear, tallying 11 seconds before the half ended, as the Panthers led 6-2.
Wesleyan made a push in the third quarter, scoring three of the first four goals to close the gap to 7-5. Middlebury regained a three-goal cushion with a man-up goal by Jacobs, as he scored from the top of the crease after taking a feed from Kucinski. The Cardinals added a goal from Harry Stanton with 3:29 left in the frame, making it an 8-6 Panther lead with 15 minutes left to play.
The Cardinals pulled to within 8-7 when Christian Barker scored a man-up goal from Carter Hawthorne just over four minutes into the final frame. The duo flipped roles minutes later on another goal with a Panther serving a penalty, as Hawthorne tallied to knot the score at 8-8. Stanton scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal with 4:58 remaining with an underhanded shot.
Middlebury had a quality chance to force overtime in the final seconds when Riehl got off a shot, but Wesleyan goalie Ted Bergman (12 saves) made a diving stop to preserve the lead.
Kucinski led all players with five points in the game, scoring once and setting up four others, while Jacobs finished with two goals and one assist. Jake Madnick collected a game-high six ground balls and went 10-18 on faceoffs. Midgley finished with 13 saves and completed the tournament with 56 in three games, four short of the tournament record of 60.
For the Cardinals, Ghesquiere posted a hat trick and Barker scored twice and set up two more. Hawthorne scooped up five ground balls and Andres Rodriguez caused three turnovers.
Wesleyan held a 40-36 advantage in shots and a 35-28 edge in ground balls. The Cardinals went 5-7 in man-up situations, while Middlebury was 1-5.