Former head field hockey Coach Bertie Landes left Shippensburg University with many things: the university’s first ever national title, the university’s second and a legacy capped off with 302 wins as the head coach of possibly the most successful athletic program at SU. But for Landes, perhaps most important of all was leaving the university in a place where it could be successful without her.
It is such a rarity in the sports world to be able to walk out on top of your sport. For Landes, waltzing into the NCAA Field Hockey Hall of Fame, earning nearly 500 wins and sporting a pair of freshly polished national championship rings has been the career of her dreams.
“To think that 300 of them occurred here at Ship just is a testament to the type of players that came here to Ship and bought into the program,” Landes said.
But Landes’ success at Shippensburg goes much deeper than any win total or personal accolades do. Under Landes, the field hockey program has grown into something the players, students and alumni can be proud of.
“When I first came in here we were nobody,” Landes said.
But under the direction of coach Landes, Shippensburg began getting better prospects and players that genuinely wanted to buy into the team-first system. “We don’t need stars,” Landes said. “We need people who want to play well together as a team and again it’s just creating that environment in which the girls know that they can win and it took a couple years.”
The growth and development team after team centered on one goal for Landes for years. Bloomsburg University was the team that everyone was gunning for. Bloomsburg was the powerhouse of the conference for years, with seven NCAA Championships from 2002-09. With Landes’ constantly pushing her teams and the level of competition rapidly growing, the Raiders finally jumped that hurdle and began beating the Huskies.
The confidence Landes exuded spread throughout her team, and the results showed. “I can remember one of the North teams, U-Mass Lowell, their coach saying ‘you know Bertie, the difference between my team and your team, your kids know you can beat Bloom, my team doesn’t think they can beat Bloom.’” That was a big moment for the Raiders, who finally made it to the NCAA Championship in 2010.
“It was just an amazing time in our program in which we were finally able to compete at the top and beat anyone if we had our mind set [to it],” Landes said.
But Landes’ championship season would have to wait. In 2013, after falling short in the PSAC Championship game against Millersville University, her team was finally able to climb the NCAA mountain for the university’s first ever national title.
Her team again reached the peak in 2016, in remarkably similar fashion following the tragic start to the team’s season. “It was amazing how much we mirrored 2013 in every aspect,” Landes said. The team had a torrid start to the season, allowing just six goals in 18 games. The Raiders again fell to Millersville in the PSAC Championship game, a loss that would shake the confidence of most groups.
“I was concerned as a coach because it was great to win but when we’d lost, what would that do with how the girls felt about Strous and letting her down,” Landes said. “It was a great opportunity for them to say ‘look, we lost a game but we’re still in it and now what do we want to do with it?’”
The loss seemed to galvanize the group into a unit that would not be denied. The team went on to beat Millersville in the semi-final game in Easton, Massachusetts, and like 2013, took down a strong Long Island University-Post team 2-1 for the Landes’ second and final national title.
Though Landes is heading off into the sunset with her stellar 2016 senior class, leaving the program in good shape was something Landes felt was necessary to move on. “This junior class, they are very capable.” “As hard as it is for me to step away from them and to give them to the next coach, it’s best for them to prove themselves to this new coach and introduce her to the traditions and what has made us great in the past years.”
New head coach Tara Zollinger has some big shoes to fill, but next season’s team has the core to repeat last year’s feat. Zollinger’s resume is loaded with championship pedigree, which is valuable for a team looking to defend its title.
Title defense is always easier said than done. The target that follows a championship team brings a lot of pressure, but Landes is optimistic that Zollinger will steer SU in the right direction.
“Whether or not they can deal with that pressure, and I’m sure their new coach will help them deal with that pressure because she’s been there, done that,” Landes said. The team will head into the new season with new goals and new challenges ahead of them. “They’re not satisfied.”
The only thing left for Landes is to finally take some time away from the turf, away from the tournaments and away from the constant demands of recruiting incoming talent. After traveling to speak with a few universities to tell her team’s story, Landes will take her time off and just enjoy it. “For the first time in 44 years, I’ll have a weekend free,” Landes said. “That’s hard to believe.”