Middlebury's Betsy Wheeler had to look no further than the sideline for inspiration yesterday.
Wheeler's overtime goal capped the top-ranked Panthers' rally from a six-goal deficit - one of the biggest comebacks in tournament history - to defeat No. 2 Amherst, 11-10, in the Division III women's lacrosse championship game at Johns Hopkins Homewood field.
That motivation came from former Panthers goalie and current assistant coach Katie Samson. Samson helped the Panthers win the title in 1999, but a spinal cord injury in a January 2000 sledding accident confined her to a wheelchair.
"She's just as much a part of this team as she was two years ago," said Wheeler, who scored 24 seconds into the extra session. "It's an inspiration to have her there. I love hearing her voice and looking over to the sidelines and seeing her there."
The Panthers trailed by 9-3 early in the second half, but rallied with an 8-1 run. Wheeler, the tournament's most valuable player, fed Julie Bergofsky for the tying goal. Bergofsky nailed her fourth goal on a waist-high sling shot with 4:46 left in regulation.
Each team had chances to tie, but neither could in the final minutes of regulation.
In overtime, however, Middlebury won the first draw, setting up Wheeler's game-winner. The senior raced down the right side and nailed a seemingly impossible angle.
"It looked like she was going to pull up," said Amherst goalie Brooke Diamond, "but she had a nice hesitation and started coming at me. It all happened so quickly. Obviously, if I had seen it, it wouldn't have gone in the goal."
For the Panthers, the title capped off a 17-0 season, matching the record of the 1999 championship team. The only losses by the Jeffs (17-3) were to the Panthers.
The Panthers began turning the game around with a four-goal spurt early in the second half. Wheeler capped the run by racing all the way to goal with the rebound when Amherst's Molly O'Connor nailed a shot off the post. That pulled the Panthers to 9-7 with 19:12 left.
"The second five minutes, from 25 to 20, in the second half, things started not going our way," said Amherst coach Chris Paradis. "We had a couple of tough calls and a couple of turnovers. That led to them capitalizing on our mistakes."
Amherst 8 2 0 - 10
Middlebury 3 7 1 - 11
Goals: A-Osborn 4, Scheessele 3, Beaumont, Aldrich, Allen; M-Bergofsky 4, Wheeler 3, Hanley 2, Glessner, Bonney. Assists: A-Allen 3, Ouimet 3, Osborn, Beaumont; M-Hanley, Bergofsky, Glessner. Saves: A-Diamond 14; M-Grenert 5.