SUPERIOR, Wis. — Elmira and Middlebury came into Friday’s national semifinal games against Gustavus Adolphus and Plattsburgh State, respectively, seen as underdogs against a pair of teams that were undefeated coming into this year’s national semifinals.
Neither game was exactly David vs. Goliath stuff, as all four teams made it to the Division III final weekend for a reason. By the end of the night, however, two giants had fallen.
Some expected Gustavus Adolphus and Plattsburgh State to vie for the title. Instead, Elmira and Middlebury will meet Saturday night at Superior, Wis.’s Wessman Arena, and one of the previous evening’s underdogs will come away a national champion.
“You never know what’s going to happen this time of year,” Elmira head coach Dean Jackson said after his Soaring Eagles’ 4-3 overtime win Friday night over Gustavus Adolphus. “We said it to the ladies when we got into the tournament: In the final eight and the final four, it’s usually the top eight teams.
“There’s no question that’s what (Gustavus and Plattsburgh) were. Any given night, anything can happen. We just say, ‘Hey, ladies, just get there and anything can happen,’ and staring right in front of us is a national championship game.”
Elmira (23-5-1) landed the final punch Friday against the Gusties, weathering 60 minutes of regulation that saw parity restored three times before Soaring Eagles forward Samantha Curk buried the game-winner 19:22 into overtime.
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Middlebury (20-7-2) also came up big against one of Division III’s unbeaten teams Friday, knocking off Plattsburgh by a 4-1 count in the day’s first national semifinal. Plattsburgh outshot the Panthers 28-23, but timely goals and an intelligent defensive game plan saw Middlebury through to Saturday’s final.
Middlebury has made a habit in this year’s NCAA tournament of knocking off higher-seeded teams, as the Panthers also beat Norwich 3-2 in overtime on the road in the teams’ quarterfinal on Mar. 9.
If the Panthers beat a favored team again Saturday night, they may have to do it without top-line center Sara Ugalde, who was injured in Friday’s third period and had to be carried off the Wessman Arena ice by teammates and Middlebury’s athletic trainer.
Ugalde’s status for Saturday’s championship game is unknown.
The sophomore forward hasn’t been Middlebury’s leading light in terms of offensive output – her five goals and nine assists for 14 points place her 10th in the team’s scoring chart – but losing the team’s top-line center at all one day before the national championship game was a problem Panthers head coach Bill Mandigo could’ve done without.
“If Sara plays, it helps us, but if she doesn’t, we need to move some people around,” Mandigo said. “It’s one thing to do it for one period – It’s another to do it for 60 minutes, so that could be a chore for us.”
If Ugalde is out for Saturday’s championship game, there are plenty of Panthers that could help to fill the void. Senior forward Lauren Greer (11 goals and 10 assists for 21 points) and sophomore forward Emily Fluke (16-12-28), both scored in Friday’s win over Plattsburgh, and sophomore goaltender Annabelle Jones made 27 saves to backstop the Middlebury to the upset win.
Jones has been a revelation for the Panthers in the home stretch of the season. She split time with junior goalie Laura Pinsent earlier this season, but Jones has more than justified Mandigo’s decision to go with her late in the season, posting a 1.42 goals against average and a .941 save percentage.
Elmira also has its fair share of weapons, and many of them made big contributions Friday night. The Soaring Eagles’ four top scorers this season – Ashley Ryan (17-14-31), Tanis Lamoureux (13-14-27), Ashton Hogan (19-7-26) and Curk (5-17-22) all scored in their team’s national semifinal win.
In net, Elmira is led by senior netminder Lauren Sullivan, who stopped 38 shots against Gustavus on Friday, including 10 in the overtime period. She comes into Saturday’s national championship game with a 1.24 goals against average and a .938 saves percentage for this season, and she leads all Division III goaltenders with 10 shutouts.
Both teams have a few things to fix if they are to win Saturday. For Middlebury, the Panthers must improve on their faceoff win percentage – they lost 50 of 73 Friday against Plattsburgh – and they may be without Ugalde on Saturday.
Elmira has its own issues to sort out, but Curk felt confident that the Soaring Eagles will be able to resolve their problems that arose on Friday and maintain their team identity and ethos in the championship game against Middlebury.
“We need to calm down in our defensive zone and minimize our turnovers in the neutral zone, but we’ve got a solid game,” Curk said. “We’ve done it all year, that’s what’s gotten us here, gotten us this far.
“If we were to change anything, we wouldn’t be Elmira College Soaring Eagles. Teams adapt to us, not the other way around.”
Whether or not that rings true again Saturday night, it will be interesting to see if those Soaring Eagles or the Panthers of Middlebury leave Wessman Arena Saturday holding claim to the Division III title.