Panthers ready to pounce

Maddie Winslow of Middlebury (Will Costello)
Maddie Winslow of Middlebury (Will Costello)

There’s a sign above the locker room door at Middlebury that says “Bring your best.”

In practice. In games. In the classroom. In the community.

“It’s a journey. The goal is to get better every day. The games are learning experiences. The goal is to get better each and every day so that when you get to the end of the season, you’re playing your best hockey,” said coach Bill Mandigo.

If that means a second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four for the Panthers, that’s great. But it’ll be the culmination of a season’s worth of work as opposed to a goal.

“The goal is have 18 players, each player playing their best on every given day,” said Mandigo.

That’s the goal, but Mandigo said it’s rarely a reality. Hockey is often about growth and learning from mistakes, so one of the best things about this year’s Middlebury team for Mandigo is the core of upperclassmen. On the ice, the six top scorers are all upperclassmen and they prove their leadership day in and day out. Off the ice, Mandigo said the older players are teaching the younger ones about the Middlebury way.

“The focus is where it’s should be — which is on improvement, being good teammates, being good citizens,” he said. “I think they’re all great kids. They’re a joy to be around. They’re very passionate about three things. They’re very passionate about their schoolwork. They’re very passionate about their hockey. They want to do well, they hold each other accountable. They push each other. And the third thing they’re very passionate about is their volunteer work in the community. I think they do a great job of giving back to younger kids and to the community at large.”

If the players are bringing their best on the ice, than Mandigo and his staff are ensuring they’re bringing the Panthers the best possible competition to prepare them for the postseason. Middlebury has proven themselves up to the challenge.

When this year’s senior class were freshmen, the Panthers lost in the NESCAC quarterfinals. The following season, they extended their season to the NCAA quarterfinals. Last year, they lost in the national semifinals.

Middlebury continues to improve due to the tough schedule they play in the NESCAC and by scheduling games against the top teams in the country. While the games against ranked opponents are certainly part of building their postseason resume, Mandigo sees them as a measuring stick of sorts.

“Year in and year out we have one of the strongest strengths of schedule in the country. I do think that we have an awareness of that if you want to improve, you have to play really good teams. They show you your shortcomings and you learn from your mistakes. Playing good teams is what we try to do. It puts us in a position where have no choice but to learn and get better when you’re playing the really good teams.”

The team philosophy extends to the win/loss column, as well. Middlebury has two ties since returning from the winter break, but Mandigo wasn’t overly concerned about the results.

“I was disappointed for them in that they didn’t win, but as a coach who’s looking at what they’re bringing to the ice, I was really happy with the way they played and competed. You’re not going to win every game. It’s what the effort is. How did they work at it? Did they leave it on the ice?”

With just 12 games left on the schedule, Mandigo and the Panthers will continue to work on playing fast, smart hockey. They’ll focus on learning new things, being adaptable and understanding the process of how one skill, one pass, one touch can build and change the course of a game. They’ll bring their best and know that when the season is done, regardless of the outcome, they can be proud of what they put together this season.