Worth the Wait: Middlebury Ends Comeback Tour on Top


Jane Earley knew what it felt like to be on top of the world. As a freshman, she helped lead Middlebury to a Division III NCAA title.

It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing since. COVID-19 ripped away her sophomore year. As the fall of 2020 approached, staring down the possibility of having a constantly disrupted 2021 season, Earley decided to sit out. Middlebury wound up canceling its season. But for Earley, 2022 was never in doubt.

“I knew that was what I wanted to do all along, and I never questioned that,” said Earley, who played the 2022 season with junior eligibility.

And there’s no question who the best team in Division III was in 2022. Middlebury completed its comeback tour by reclaiming the title it hadn’t had the chance to play for since 2019.

Earley was confident throughout the layoff, but her coach, Kate Livesay, admits she had her moments. Were players taking a year off or choosing remote learning because lacrosse was no longer important to them? Or were they making those choices because it was? And did it really matter in the middle of a global pandemic?

Ultimately, Livesay decided to stop asking questions and start focusing on what she could do — keeping the team as together as possible given the circumstances.

“Once we shook out, I decided it was our goal to stay connected … so we didn’t become strangers,” Livesay said.

The Panthers did workout challenges, and, like the rest of the world, had plenty of Zoom bonding sessions. Earley avoided watching much lacrosse, though she heard enough about canceled games to be grateful she made the choice she did.

When the time came to get back on the field in the fall, it felt a little bit like the first day of school. Everyone was excited to be back but nervous as well — and there were plenty of new kids on the block. On top of a 17-member freshman class, the Panthers had 11 sophomores who had never played a minute of college lacrosse. And the true juniors played just three games in 2020 before the sport shut down.

“It was a hard time and left a lot of uncertainty heading into the fall,” Livesay said. “What is it going to be like with a two-year pause and a whole new cast of characters?”

It quickly became clear that it could be something special. The team wasn’t playing like a group of 30-plus strangers.

“In the fall, you’re kind of looking around and seeing what people have to offer,” Earley said. “I knew we were definitely going to be good with the freshmen and sophomores and juniors, even though they only played three games in 2020, were ready to go.”

Livesay knew the pieces were there to make a deep run in May, but she didn’t know where they fit.

“I remember in the fall, talking to several players and saying, ‘I’m not sure if you are an attacker, defender or a middie,” Livesay said.

It made a change to the fall schedule crucial. In previous seasons, the team was limited to captain’s practices. In 2021, the Panthers got to hold 15 coach’s practices. But even after those tune-ups and preseason, some of it was still trial-by-fire, given the team had, by and large, never played real competition together.

The draw was a revolving door. Earley started out on the circle but wound up taking the draw towards the end of the season. Senior captain Erin Nicholas was the opposite — she took the draw early on and then switched to the circle. Freshman Mackenzie Smith was pivotal on the draw but didn’t see much playing time off the circle, so Livesay needed to figure out how to utilize her best.

As the Panthers worked things out, they also rolled. During an undefeated regular season, they played one one-goal game (a 12-11 win over Wesleyan on April 9). They beat every other team by at least four goals. A 14-7 win over 2021 national runner-up Tufts on April 2 gave Livesay confidence they were on the right track.

So did wins in the NESCAC quarterfinals and semifinals. Middlebury beat Amherst 20-2. Wesleyan didn’t come close in the rematch — the Panthers won in a 16-6 rout. But the team’s bid for an unblemished season came to an end on May 8 in a 9-8 loss to Tufts in the NESCAC championship game.

Looking back, the setback, however imperfect it made Middlebury’s year, came at the perfect time.

“It’s kind of scary going into the postseason without a loss because you don’t know what that feels like or have that fuel,” Earley said.

The Panthers not only gained fuel but lessons that would carry them the rest of the way.

“The biggest thing was understanding what to do with stressful moments,” Livesay said. “We weren’t in a lot of stressful moments in games this year. In that game, we responded by being quiet and not sticking to the game plan and looking to the person next to us [to take it to cage or make a move].”

The day of the loss, the Panthers resolved not to be quiet anymore. It was game on.

“People just locked in,” Earley said. “After that loss, we were pretty set on going and trying to win a national championship. It was, ‘OK, this is where we are going now. This is what is next.’ Everyone was immediately on board.”

The Jumbos faceguarded Earley effectively, becoming the only team to hold the 2022 IWLCA Attacker of the Year to without a point all season. That couldn’t happen again.

“After that game, we decided it would be best to try to get me the ball even if it felt a little unnatural in our plays,” Earley said.

Earley focused on working the exterior rather than trying to set up cuts inside. The defensive unit, which finished the season second nationally in goals allowed per game (5.87), challenged her and the offense every day in practice.

“The girls who do it for me in practice do a great job and make it even harder than our opponents do, so they kept saying, ‘We can’t defend that in a faceguard,’” Earley said. “Teams tend to send the double to me, and then we have to move the ball to the open player. We drilled that for four weeks. By the end, it didn’t look out of rhythm anymore.”

The Panthers had their eyes on the national championship and potentially a rematch with Tufts, but they had to get through the rest of the bracket first. To put it bluntly, they appeared to cruise, downing SUNY Geneseo and the University of Chicago by a combined score of 44-10.

Middlebury also got running time on Colby (12-2) and Gettysburg (18-5) to set up the NCAA championship matchup the team wanted: The rubber game with Tufts.

“We wouldn’t want to go through anyone else,” Earley said. “We wanted to beat them to win it, and I think everyone was on board with that.”

The Panthers never trailed in the game, and Earley made plenty of noise. She poured in a game-high six goals and earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honor.

As Livesay watched her team celebrate, she thought about the players robbed of their senior years because of the pandemic. And she watched the underclassmen who kept their commitment to the program and helped it build on a legacy, despite a two-year layoff.

“It was this nice blend of those players from the past who really set that foundation and those younger players who had to show a ton of confidence and poise,” Livesay said. “For me, it felt really rewarding based on how challenging the last two years have been.”

The Panthers likely aren’t disappearing from the national scene again, or at least not anytime soon. They return most of their lineup from this season, and Livesay is looking ahead with renewed optimism.

“It feels exciting and really different from how we started this fall to come in with players who have more established roles,” Livesay said. “We needed to have a season that showcased all the things we are proud of, which are the heart, the commitment and the hard work of these players. They really showed what we believe Middlebury lacrosse is all about. Every year, we’re looking to capture that same spirit.”


Most Recent

A Comeback for the Ages: An Oral History of North Carolina vs. Northwestern

This one had it all — a lightning delay, goalie redemption, an unlikely hero and more.

Why We Chose Cailin Bracken as the December 2022 Cover Star

Bracken's "A Letter to College Sports" helped kickstart mental health conversations.

Out of Darkness, a Light: Behind Cailin Bracken's Letter to College Sports

How Bracken became the voice of a mental health movement in college sports.

Behind the Whistle: We Are Grateful For ...

IWLCA member coaches share what they're thankful for ahead of Thanksgiving.

Twitter Posts