Lions defeat Middlebury to win NCAA Division III Championship

Senior goalkeeper Shannon Syciarz poses with the new hardware. (Lisa Nitzsche / Staff Photographer)

They’ve seen the trophies, they’ve heard the stories, and they’ve prepared themselves for this moment all season, but no one was quite sure how to react when the final seconds ran off the clock against Middlebury College and the ultimate dream — a National Championship — became a reality.

Senior defender Alex Okuniewicz joined Assistant Coach Robin Selbst at midfield and helped raise their trophy in triumph, junior defender Camille Passucci did her signature celebration dance, Head Coach Sharon Pfluger jumped into the arms of Assistant Coach Richard Cox, and senior goalkeeper Shannon Syciarz took a moment to take it all in before joining her team in celebration.

“Being here for four years, this is obviously the goal in the beginning of every season,” Syciarz said. “Being able to end not only the season, but also my career, on a win and a National Championship is something that you can’t describe.”

The 3-1 victory over the Panthers gave the College one for the other thumb, with this year’s title being the 10th NCAA title in program history and the first since 1999.

“You hear the stories from the coaching staff and the alumna, but it’s something you have to experience to really know how it feels,” Syciarz said.

It took everything that the Lions had this season to get to Dudley, Mass., and it took even more to leave unscathed. Each play seemed to be a make-or-break moment, and each was followed up by another one that carried even more weight than the last.

“Neither team could let up for a second, because every possession was critical,” said Pfluger, who has now coached the College’s field hockey team to eight national titles. “We have struggled through a tremendous amount of challenges, but those challenges made us really tough.”

The Lions’ toughness was tested against the Panthers when junior forward/midfielder Kathleen Notos was given a yellow card in the second half, while the score was tied at one. Notos, who knocked in the Lions’ only goal to that point, took a seat and watched as her team played at a disadvantage for five minutes.

What seemed to be a burden quickly turned in the Lions’ favor, though, as they capitalized on a penalty corner soon after the card was handed out. Passucci sent a smooth feed toward freshman forward Erin Waller, who steadied the pass and then drove a shot into the back of the cage with 23:55 remaining.

“Erin’s primary hits on corners are so important to our game,” Passucci said. “When she is able to score on a shot like that, which is so beautiful, crisp and simple, it calms the team down. She has perfected her shot and it was so important because she was able to connect with the back of the cage.”

Once the Lions got ahead, they got back to what propelled them into the title game — air-tight defense.

Syciarz, who was honored with the tournament’s Most Valuable Player Award, led the defense as the Lions eliminated every obstacle thrown their way. The Panthers used their speed to create favorable scoring opportunities throughout the whole contest, but Syciarz was able to come out and cut off the initial threat while freshman midfielder Lauren Pigott denied any chance of a passing lane.

The team gathers around their 2011 Championship trophy. (Lisa Nitzsche / Staff Photographer

“Lauren stayed steady throughout the entire game and did a great job of denying her girl the ball,” Syciarz said. “Knowing that she was behind me gave me a lot more confidence to come out of the cage and pressure the ball on fast breaks.”

With the defense locking down the Panthers, Waller all but ensured the Lions’ victory when she scored off another penalty corner with less than six minutes left on the clock. After that goal, time was the only factor separating the Lions from the National Championship.

Before meeting Middlebury for the title, the Lions defeated Urisinus College in similar fashion by a score of 2-0.

Syciarz made a season-high 16 saves as she recorded her 11th shutout of the season, but she wasn’t alone in that effort. Her supporting cast played a big part in the goose egg, recording three defensive saves.

The first came in the 12th minute of the game as Pigott put her body in harm’s way in order to reject a rebound shot by Ursinus’ Catherine Bitterly. Passucci added a defensive save as well in the second half, while senior defender Jessica Persicketti followed suit with a great diving save 10 minutes later.

“It’s a team of girls who would put their lives on the line for each other on the field and off the field,” Syciarz said.

It’s that type of cohesiveness that helped the Lions stay steady over a two-minute span that included five penalty corners for the Bears, according to Pfluger.

“The rest of the girls did a great job getting back,” Pfluger said. “They’ll do it for each other, and they’ll do whatever it takes in the fairness of play to get the job done.”

The Lions scored both of their goals against the Bears in the first half with the cardinal goal coming a little over nine minutes into the game. Notos again got the Lions on the board by knocking in a touch pass from senior forward/midfielder Leigh Mitchell.

“We knew that we needed to score early and often,” Notos said. “Once I got that goal, which was a team effort, I was like, ‘Here we go, we need to keep it going.’”

The Lions kept it going with yet another penalty corner situation later in the half, with Waller knocking in an assist from Passucci.

Once the Lions got through the Bears, the only task left was to come out on top over the Panthers. There were some nerves, but the team was ready, according to Passucci.

“We treated every game this past season like it was the National Championship,” Passucci said. “So, when we got there, we felt the same energy that we have felt all season.”

The team collectively lets the world know its rank in D-III field hockey. (Lisa Nitzsche / Staff Photographer)

Syciarz screamed, embraced her teammates and enjoyed every moment of the Lions’ National Championship celebration, but she still has to pinch herself to believe it all really happened.

“It’s unbelievable. I pictured the moment over and over, but no words can really do the feeling justice,” Syciarz said. “It’s rare that a season ends with a win, so ending this season and my career with a win is the perfect way to go out.”