MILWAUKEE — Don’t let the pink jerseys and sideline antics fool you — the Middlebury Pranksters are the real deal.
With a hard-fought 12-11 victory over #1 seed Puget Sound on double game point, Middlebury earned their first DIII National Championship title.
“We’re so stoked, but it’s also really funny,” said captain Jeff Hetzel, who thought playing in front of a big crowd was somewhat crazy. But the team rose to the occasion, gritting out a tough win in windy conditions.
They started the game in a hole, going down 3-1 with sloppy play and lots of turnovers. Captain Davis Whitehead, the team’s main handler, had four throwaways on the first point alone.
But the Pranksters used two 3-0 runs in the first half to take command of the game, led by the outstanding play of Will Lones, who continued to find separation downfield.
Middlebury headed into halftime up 8-5.
Puget Sound, who all weekend long had been fighting back from deficits to win games late, showed their second half strength again. They opened the half with a 3-0 run of their own, but the increasing wind made scoring upwind harder and harder throughout the game. The teams traded points to the finish. Both had some opportunites to get a break, but couldn’t convert them at the endzone.
Puget Sound captain Spencer Sheridan thinks the difficult comeback victories in quarter- and semifinals hurt them in the final. “It took some out of us,” he said. “When it came down to it, we just couldn’t put it into gear when we needed to.”
Middlebury stressed how quick offensive scores all weekend preserved their legs. “That efficiency was what made the difference,” said captain Stephen Lammers. The defensive line, which Hetzel said was “terrible” earlier this season, played outstanding ultimate and allowed Middlebury to manage a 14 man roster over the course of the weekend.
“The focus the whole weekend was shutting down handlers,” said Whitehead, noting that DIII teams often rely on their handlers — often their best players — to make everything happen on offense.
That strategy proved effective. Their only truly close game came in the finals.
They didn’t come into the weekend thinking they were going to win. Although they had made winning DIII Nationals a goal early in the season, that dream seemed far off when they were losing to Bentley at Regionals. But they knew they had a shot, they said, after they beat the reigning National Champions Carleton GOP on Saturday.
The Middlebury captains praised the spirit of everyone they played this weekend, saying it was the most spirited tournament they played at all year.
They have always been known as a fun-loving, spirited team as well. “The Pranksters are all about loving each other,” said Whitehead. “We kiss each other on the cheek before every game.”