Fueled by stingy defensive play and timely goal scoring, the field hockey team advanced to the NESCAC semifinals by thumping archrival Wesleyan 3-0 at Gooding Field this past Sunday. Fourth-seeded Amherst (6-3 NESCAC) will square off against second-seeded Bowdoin (8-1 NESCAC) next Saturday at Tufts University for a place in the championship game.
The Jeffs are not just winning shootouts anymore. Their defense is winning games, too.
Amherst had won a majority of their games earlier this season by simply out-slugging their opponents; heading into the weekend, the Jeffs had scored four or more goals in eight of their 10 victories this season.
In their regular season game against Wesleyan just 11 days ago, the Jeffs blew a two-goal lead — and even fell behind 3-2 in the second half — before rebounding with two goals in the final 10 minutes to earn a 4-3 victory.
Since that high-scoring affair, the Jeffs have tightened things up on the defensive end, beating fellow NESCAC semifinalist Trinity 2-1 in the regular season finale before shutting out Wesleyan 3-0. The Jeffs have re-committed themselves to team defense — better communication, discipline, marking — and the hard work has paid dividends, propelling Amherst to its first NESCAC semifinal appearance since 2006.
“The difference in our defense between the regular season game against Wesleyan and Sunday’s game was like night and day. Basic things like communication and disciplined marking go a long way against teams with speedy forwards like Wesleyan,” said goalkeeper Liz Schink ’11. “Getting that much out of a week of practice speaks volumes about the dedication on this team, from starters to those who busted their butts during practice to expose weaknesses and make us a better team.”
On Sunday, Wesleyan actually got off to a vigorous start, recording five shots and earning four penalty corners in the first 2:30 of play. Schink was up to the task, though, making several key stops to keep the Cardinals off the scoreboard.
After absorbing the early charge, Amherst controlled the tempo for the duration of the first half. Slicing through the defense with precise passing movements, the Jeffs peppered the Wesleyan net area with a barrage of shots, but Cardinals’ goalkeeper Tori Redding made several spectacular saves to keep her team in the game.
The Jeffs finally broke through with 7:19 remaining in the first half. Lining up for a penalty corner, Katie McMahon ’13 sent a pass to Carly Dudzik ’12, who smacked a hard shot past the beleaguered Wesleyan goalkeeper.
After a wild, back-and-forth first half, the game slowed to a defensive grind in the latter frame. The Jeffs completely suffocated the Wesleyan offense, holding the Cardinals to a meager three shots and zero penalty corners in the second half. After the interval, Schink had to make only one save, as the Jeffs’ defense continually clogged up shooting lanes.
“We have been trying all season to get things to come together on defense,” said Schink, “and I think what finally made the difference today was that the effort was collective. In all honesty, the adjustments were pretty basic. But, when everyone is making them — when everyone is on board — small adjustments yield big results.”
On offense, the Jeffs doubled their lead 9:38 into the second half, when Rachel Egan ’11 found Carly Leahy ’11 on the doorstep after a penalty corner. Krista Zsitvay ’14 added an insurance goal with 10:30 remaining as the Jeffs cruised to victory. The Jeffs outshot the Cardinals by a 20-10 (6-3 second half) margin and held a resounding 16-5 advantage (4-0 second half) in penalty corners. Schink finished the game with six saves, while Wesleyan’s Tori Redding stopped 13 of 16 shots.
“Everything really clicked for us this weekend. We connected on passes through the midfield, shut down their attackers in our defensive zone and capitalized on scoring opportunities,” Leahy said. “We were able to carry momentum through the entire game. We really felt like Wesleyan had not seen our best game and we were excited to get the opportunity to show them.”
The Jeffs will take on Bowdoin in the NESCAC semifinals this Saturday. Amherst, ranked 16th in the nation, faced fourth ranked Bowdoin in the season opener, losing to the Polar Bears 4-3 on the road.
“The 4-3 loss to Bowdoin in this year’s opener has been our minds all season. I remember telling myself and the team after that game to remember what the loss felt like so that, the next time we played them, we’d know better,” Schink said. “It is extremely motivating to get a second chance at any team who beats you in the regular season, especially in a game that close against a team that handed you one of only three losses.”
“Our game against Bowdoin was early in our season and it was a battle. We could have come out on top, and now that we are peaking as a team — we’ve won 11 of our last 12 games — we know that we can beat them,” Leahy said.
In last season’s home opener, the Jeffs pulled off a stunning 2-0 upset against the Polar Bears, who had been the top-ranked team in the country entering the season. Bowdoin avenged that loss by beating Amherst 3-0 in last year’s NESCAC quarterfinals.
“I think last year’s playoff loss against Bowdoin was, if nothing else, a huge source of motivation in today’s game [against Wesleyan] because none of the players on our team have ever made it past that first round game in the NESCAC tournament,” Schink said.
The Jeffs concluded their regular season with a 2-1 overtime victory against Trinity on Friday. Both teams entered Friday’s contest tied for fourth place in the NESCAC (5-3 record). The top four NESCAC teams host first-round playoff matchups, so home-field advantage was at stake as the Jeffs and Bantams competed under the lights of Gooding Field.
The game was a defensive battle from the start, as both teams struggled to generate scoring chances in the first half. At around the 20-minute mark, Trinity earned two penalty corners, and fired three shots at Amherst goalkeeper Schink, but the senior captain came up with some crucial saves to keep the game scoreless.
The Jeffs opened the scoring with just 1:48 remaining in the first half. After weaving her way into the offensive area, Katie McMahon ’13 slid a pass over to Rachel Lupien ‘12, whose shot barely trickled past Trinity goalkeeper, Gina Dinallo.
Trinity scored an equalizer 12 minutes into the second half, when the Bantams’ Paige Duke banged home a loose rebound from a penalty corner.
The Jeffs scored a fantastic overtime goal to clinch home-field advantage. Controlling the ball at midfield, Dudzik lifted a pass to split two Bantam defenders, sending McMahon on a breakaway. Trinity’s Dinallo came charging off her line, but McMahon chipped the ball into the cage from a tough angle.
The Jeffs will travel to Tufts to take on Bowdoin at 6 p.m. on Saturday.