The Jeffs overcame a 5-3 haltime defecit in the NCAA title game to win their first-ever national championship.
Amherst's 2003 NCAA Championship Season Remembered
October 16, 2003
AMHERST, MA - They had a talented squad loaded with depth and experience, returning eight seniors and three All-Americans from a team that played in consecutive NCAA Final Fours. Their attack and midfield were spared the ravages of graduation, and their defense - somewhat depleted but still strong - boasted the reigning national goaltender of the year. Their coach, Christine Paradis, was respected and revered, having built the program into a perennial contender, with four NCAA Tournament appearances, two trips to the national title game and 98 victories in eight seasons.
“I knew we had talent,” Paradis remembers. “The big thing was rebuilding our defense after losing three great players (Cara Coscarelli, Robin Ackerman and Carrie Foster) to graduation. We had our entire midfield and attack returning and eight seniors on the roster. If there was ever a year we could win a championship, this was it.”
Yet with all they knew, all they were sure of, a nagging doubt lingered for the 2003 Amherst women’s lacrosse team. Their recent success, although noteworthy, paled in comparison to that of NESCAC rival Middlebury College. The Panthers were the two-time defending national champions (winning four of the last six NCAA crowns overall), two-time defending conference champions and were undefeated since the 2000 NCAA Semifinals. Beyond that, they’d beaten Amherst five in a row and won seven of the last eight games in the series, knocking the Jeffs out of the 1999 and 2001 NCAA title games as well as the 2001 and 2002 NESCAC Championship games.
And so the 2003 season began, with Middlebury first and Amherst second in the national polls. They entered their first meeting, both undefeated, and it was a mismatch. Middlebury outshot the Jeffs 30-12 and won the game 16-5. They met again in the NESCAC Championship game, and the outcome was the same - Middlebury 9, Amherst 5. It was the third straight season Middlebury had ousted the Jeffs from the conference tournament.
The loss was disappointing, but it carried a sense of accomplishment. Amherst played smart, possession lacrosse and held Middlebury to single-digit scoring for the first time all season. The Jeffs didn’t force things. They made decisions under pressure. Their leadership and experience were tested, and they survived, spirit intact. Suddenly, Middlebury didn’t seem so untouchable.
Amherst awaited an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and expected to host regional play. Instead, as the No. 5 seed, they were sent to Gettysburg College, and they weren’t happy. Out to prove a point, they summarily dismissed SUNY Cortland and host Gettysburg by a combined score of 32-14, and entered their third straight NCAA Final Four with a wealth of momentum in tow.
From there they traveled to St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., where the second-ranked College of New Jersey (TCNJ) awaited, a berth in the NCAA Championship game at stake. Again, the defense held strong, limiting TCNJ to a season-low 10 goals en route to a narrow 12-10 win.
Meanwhile, Middlebury pounded William Smith 20-4 in the other national semifinal, stretching its winning streak to a whopping 51 games and setting the stage for yet another Amherst-Middlebury national title game - the third such meeting between the two teams in the last five years.
Of all their matchups over the past few years, the odds seemed to rest in Middlebury’s favor more than ever. They’d ripped through the regular season, NESCAC and NCAA Tournament with a perfect 16-0 record, including two wins over Amherst. They were the two-time defending national champs and they’d won their NCAA semifinal game by 16 points. They were Goliath to Amherst’s David, and they seemed unreachable by slingshot.
But Amherst remembered the strides they made in the NESCAC Championship game. They controlled the tempo and shut down Middlebury’s vaunted fast-break offense, answering the Panthers time and time again.
“We felt like we had a chance,” said senior Annie Jamieson, one of three Amherst captains along with classmates Brooke Diamond and Erin Beaumont. “There was a general calm about the whole day, from the time we got out of bed and went to breakfast. Even in warmups the coaches said we looked really calm.”
The Jeffs opened with a flourish as senior Abby Ouimet fed juniors Liz Martin and Allison Aldrich for a pair of early scoring strikes and a 2-1 lead. Middlebury rebounded with four unanswered goals to pull ahead 5-2, but the Jeffs slowed the pace and held the Panthers scoreless for the next 12 minutes. Jamieson, senior BriAnne Watkins, junior Jackie Sargent and rookie Margaret Chute, along with a strong core of midfield defenders - senior Mary Kate Allen, first-year Scotty Hanley, Martin and Aldrich - stymied the Panther offense, and Diamond was a stone wall in goal, braving 13 shots with five saves in the first half. Martin connected again off a feed from senior Laura Schifter, and the Jeffs trailed by just two goals, 5-3, at the break.
“We knew exactly what we needed to do - slow them down just enough, without stalling, and turn up the intensity on offense,” Jamieson added. “We had complete confidence. There was a lot of excitement in that locker room.”
Aldrich fueled the fire, splitting defenders and nailing a bounce shot in the opening minutes of the second period. After a Middlebury goal, Aldrich found Beaumont, who connected from just outside the crease, and Aldrich found the back of the net again off a slick feed from Schifter. Just like that, the score was tied 6-6.
“We had a lot of energy,” Aldrich said. “It was the last game of the season and we had nothing to lose. After we tied it up we were so pumped, so excited. I looked at Liz Martin, she looked at me and we said ‘Let’s go!’ ”
Martin took over from there, answering a pair of Middlebury tallies with four of the game’s next five goals - three off free position shots and one off Ouimet’s third assist. Martin tied the game at 8-8, knotted the score again at 9-9 and gave the Jeffs the lead for good with her sixth goal of the game with 3:18 left in regulation.
The Jeffs regained possession after the ensuing draw, thanks to a key interception by Beaumont, and Ouimet sealed the deal with her 55th goal of the season as the final seconds ticked away. The insurance tally gave her 271 points for her career and 103 for the season - both school records.
“It gives me chills just thinking about it,” said Ouimet. “I started crying. We were all running around, hugging each other. It felt so great. We just couldn’t believe it.”
It was a major accomplishment - the program’s first national championship and only the second NCAA Team Championship in school history. Amherst placed four players on the All-Tournament team - Martin, Ouimet, Schifter and Jamieson. Diamond finished with 12 saves in the title game and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. She went on to win National Goaltender of the Year honors for the second straight season, and Jamieson, Ouimet, Allen and Martin joined her on several postseason All-America teams.
“It was the culmination of all the hours each of us had put into sports in general, and all the sacrifices we made to play sports at Amherst,” said Diamond. “Getting up at 5 a.m. to practice on the turf at UMass. All the sacrifices you make because you love something so much. It was amazing. This win was for everyone who had played at Amherst and gone through the Middlebury gauntlet over the last few years. To be able to play well, win the game and redeem ourselves was just a great feeling.”
-Kevin Graber, Sports Information Director
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