The finals are set.
The Shippensburg University field hockey team has reached its final destination, defeating East Stroudsburg University, 2-1, to punch its ticket to the 2017 NCAA Finals.
The Raiders (16-4), will face a familiar foe, Long Island University-Post (19-3), which will be a rematch of last year’s championship game and the team’s 2013 championship run.
Shippensburg’s third match against East Stroudsburg (17-5) was its tightest contest against the Warriors yet, with SU coming out on top in the team’s most important game of the season.
“We’re excited to be here, excited to get here and stay focused and we were able to come out with a lot of fire in the opening minutes,” head coach Tara Zollinger said. “We’re really excited to be advancing and super proud of the team for being able to follow the game plan and manage our emotions.”
Pressure mounted for Shippensburg early in the first half, as the team’s energy was too much for the Warriors to handle. For the Raiders, it was that focus, energy and NCAA Playoff experience that seemed to be the difference in the game.
“Experience really gives you confidence going into anything in life, and we have a lot of experience, so we’ve got a lot of confidence,” Zollinger said. “We know exactly what this stage means and what you need to do on this stage to be successful.”
With the dominance displayed in the opening 15 minutes of the game, it was only a matter of time before the Raiders found an opening in the Warriors’ defense. The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Freshman of the Year Jazmin Petrantonio kicked off the semifinals with a rifle from the point, finally capitalizing on the array of chances in front of the ESU goaltender.
Petrantonio’s goal and breakout season may be new for Shippensburg, but scoring off penalty corners is a skill she has become accustomed to over the course of her field hockey career. “It’s something I’ve been doing in Argentina for many years,” Petranonio joked.
The Raiders were not satisfied with just one goal, though, as senior forward Mary Spisak picked off a loose ball on a fast break and slotted home her 10th goal of the season to give SU a dream start to the semifinal matchup.
“That’s the beauty of the game,” Spisak said. “That’s when the best goals are scored, at those unexpected times. Initially I wasn’t expecting it, but I knew I had to get it done for the team.”
Shippensburg closed out the first half with all the momentum, but the team knew that East Stroudsburg would not go out quietly.
The Warriors made their push in the second half, utilizing a strong possession game to create some activity in front of the SU goal. Shippensburg’s defense in particular found success all game in thwarting ESU’s forwards and their attempts to set up plays in front of the SU net.
“They [the defensive line] knew the strengths of the other team and they knew how to defend them,” Zollinger said. “They trusted their own abilities, their teammates’ ability and they knew if they stuck to the game plan that they would be able to manage anything coming their way.”
Despite Shippensburg’s ability to force ESU’s attacks wide of the net, East Stroudsburg eventually managed to break through, scoring on a deflection that bounced around haphazardly in front of the net and into the goal. But as much as East Stroudsburg continued to try to push the pace and create offensive zone time, the Raiders boxed out the Warriors throughout the second frame, not allowing a single penalty corner in the second half.
SU closed out the final 10 minutes in East Stroudsburg’s defensive half, entirely forcing the Warriors to fight for possession rather than creating chances on net. Shippensburg’s stone-tight grip on the lead proved to be the final score, ending East Stroudsburg’s season with a 2-1 victory.
Joining the 2016 Division II National Championship team carries a lot of weight. For Zollinger, her initial feel for the team in her first season with the university affirmed her choice to become the head coach of a championship-caliber team.
Zollinger and the team know their work is not done, though, and for this squad, this position is exactly where the team envisioned itself at the start of the season
“These athletes are so enthusiastic and so committed,” Zollinger said. “This is their vision. When I stepped on campus, they said, ‘we want to be national champions, are you going to get us there?’”
That winning attitude and mentality has given the Raiders the opportunity to defend its 2016 national title. Shippensburg’s NCAA Championship run comes full circle, as the Raiders take on the Pioneers of LIU-Post on Sunday at 11 a.m.