Field Hockey: Patriot League Tournament Preview

By: Alex Smith

November means playoff time! For the third straight year, the road to the NCAA Tournament goes through New Balance Field, with the top four teams in the league featuring in a single-elimination tournament. Friday’s first round action begins at noon with BU and Holy Cross, followed by Bucknell-American at 3 p.m. Both games will air on the Patriot League Network.  

The top four of Boston University, American University, Bucknell and Holy Cross is the same as a year ago, with the Bison and Crusaders trading places as the third and fourth seeds. Holy Cross punched their ticket with a dramatic road win over Lafayette in a win-and-in contest with the Leopards. Both the Bison and the Crusaders ended the year at 3-3 in the league, with Bucknell victorious in the deciding head-to-head matchup.

Below you’ll find an in-depth breakdown of each team along with some key stats. Because of a wide variance in schedule difficulty, the focus is mainly on conference record, statistics and goal differential.

#1 Boston University Terriers (6-0, +21 goal differential, led league with 26 goals)

BU completed its perfect league season on Saturday as they defeated No. 3 Bucknell, 1-0. Despite the win, it may have been the Terriers’ worst league performance of the year as they were an Ally Hammel defensive save and a Stephanie Dressler miss away from being defeated, 2-1. That said, the game that was virtually meaningless for a BU squad that had already secured home-field advantage.

Throughout the year, the Terriers struggled against non-league opponents, failing to beat a ranked team outside of American, who was No. 24 at the time. The bumps were expected with a tough schedule; a team with nine freshman was going to be hard pressed to upset the likes of No. 1 UConn or No. 2 Duke.

With one-goal games against Harvard, Princeton and Boston College – all of which were ranked between 10 and 20 – the Terriers have shown that they can compete with NCAA Tournament-quality opposition. While first-round opponent Holy Cross hasn’t played to the level of those aforementioned squads, a potential championship rematch with American will undoubtedly be as tricky as ever for BU.

Before the season it was impossible to predict how good these Terriers could be. With nine freshman, there were too many unknowns. The preseason coaches’ poll picked American to finish above BU, a good bet considering AU had defeated the Terriers in last year’s title match.

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Kiley Ghallagher (BU) and her teammates found little space in last year’s title game

From game one, the Terriers looked stout at the back. This wasn’t a surprise, with junior Ally Hammel and right back Jordyn Beesmer both returning to a squad that led the entire nation in goals-against-average a season ago. Newcomer Kathryn Scheerer slotted into the backline seamlessly to form the best defense in the league with a .83 GAA vs conference opponents. Kali Shumock also provided a crucial defensive balance to the midfield.

Up front, the Terriers took time to mesh, but, once they did, the goals began to pile up. BU began the conference slate with a dominant 5-1 win over Lafayette. Freshman Ailsa Connolly recorded a hat trick in the game and didn’t look back. She finished the regular season with a team-leading 10 goals, and was an imposing force athletically with a unique combination of length and strength.

Fellow freshman Petra Hall was a revelation, scoring five goals with a fox-in-the-box mentality. Fifteen goals scored by the experienced starting line of Allie Renzi, Grace Boston and Kara Enoch, in addition to Miya Denison’s strong freshman campaign, have made the loss of Amanda Cassera and Taylor Blood surprisingly negligible.

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Ally Hammel prepares to unleash a corner. She’s scored 5 goals with an assist this season.

Another question mark headed into the season was the goalkeeping situation. Without Cammy Jensen, the Terriers lacked a keeper with any real experience heading into game one. A battle emerged between junior Kathleen Keegan (.727 save percentage) and freshman Millie Baker (.558 save percentage). The two split games in the cage, with one starting each half. Keegan began the season as the first-half goalie. Both had good moments, and looked relatively even despite the numbers suggesting otherwise.

It seemed, though, that Baker was pushing for a full-time role midway through the season. She started and played all 70 minutes against No. 2 Duke, but made just three saves as the Blue Devils scored five goals on eight shots. Since then, their roles have been flipped with Baker starting games and Keegan closing them. The result for BU has been a rather pedestrian .644 save percentage overall – good enough for 5th best in the league; though against conference opponents that number jumps to a league-best .778.

In her 37th season, Patriot League Coach of the Year Sally Starr has some important answers to uncover. Is it possible to play a postseason game with two goalies? After an entire season of splitting games, is it possible NOT to? We’ll get an answer on Friday.

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Both BU keepers have appeared in 17 of BU’s 18 games this season

#2 American University Eagles (5-1 PL, +12 goal differential)

After upsetting the Terriers, 1-0, in the tournament finale last year, the Eagles will attempt to repeat the feat again in 2017. This time, though, it wouldn’t be nearly as unexpected. American began the season ranked higher than Boston University in both the national poll and the preseason Patriot League Poll, where they were picked to repeat as champions.

The hosting rights were always going to be decided on October 7th at New Balance Field in a game between the Eagles and Terriers. The Terriers prevailed at home, 2-1, thanks to Grace Boston’s goal in the 64th minute, forcing the Eagles to earn two straight road wins in order to secure their second straight tournament berth. Both teams spent most of the season ranked between No. 20 and No. 25, though American dropped out of the rankings and didn’t return after being defeated by the Terriers.

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Both teams watch nervously as Grace Boston’s 64th minute shot trickled over the line, giving BU the win over American in October

The Eagles return much of the 2016 team that defeated BU, most notably losing Natalie Konerth to graduation. Offensive Player of the Year Rafaela Rubas (12 goals, 8 assists) headlines a deep and talented squad.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story; whether it be skillful runs from deep in her own half, expert distribution in midfield, or her powerful shot atop the corner battery, Rubas is a dynamic and technical force in the middle of the park for the Eagles, the beating heart of her team. Bucknell will certainly have their hands full with the midfielder from Vienna, a player that any coach in the nation would fit into their starting eleven.

Somehow, though, the junior didn’t even lead her own team in points. Noor Coenan, a first year player out of the Netherlands, exploded onto the scene and finished second in the league with 15 goals – though only three came against league opponents. Coenan captured rookie of the year honors, and deservedly so.

This dynamic duo plus a supporting cast of senior Hayley Bowcutt (10G, 8A including a hat trick vs Bucknell) and speedster Leah DiGiandomenico make the Eagles incredibly hard to deal with. A 4-0 victory over Bucknell at home is a good omen for the second ranked Eagles, who are tasked with downing the Bison once more before a potential 2016 title rematch.

Junior goalkeeper Maura Jacobs was the hero in last year’s title game, denying Allie Renzi with a heroic stick-save to the upper right corner in the game’s dying moments. Despite this she’s struggled in net against conference foes this season to the tune of a .647 save percentage. She’s a skilled goalkeeper no doubt, and American will need a return to form if they are to complete the repeat. Jacobs is as capable as any keeper in the league, and has shown that in a playoff atmosphere, where goaltending performances become even more crucial.

A year ago, Steve Jennings and his squad executed the playoff-upset strategy to perfection: defend with physicality, stay compact behind the ball, make miraculous saves and convert corner chances. He won’t have to rely on those same methods this time, as improvement from his team and a youth movement for BU’s have made the pair an even matchup this time around. Barring a miraculous first round upset from Bucknell or Holy Cross, we should be in for an exciting finale to an eventful Patriot League season.

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Rafaela Rubas (19) sprints away from the BU defense in last year’s title game. She scored the game’s only goal.

 
#3 Bucknell Bison (3-3 PL, +2 goal differential)

The Bison have become regulars in the postseason tournament, featuring for an incredible tenth consecutive season. Unfortunately, though, they haven’t captured a single title during that span. Even in 2014, when they finished at 6-0 in the league and hosted the tournament, they fell to Boston University in the title game. No program has been more consistent in qualifying for the postseason than the Bison, but unfortunately no program has been more snakebitten either. Bucknell is 6-19 all time in the postseason, and bucking the trend will be an uphill battle with two superb teams waiting for them.

The Bison were as average as they come this season, especially from a statistical perspective. They went 9-9 overall, 3-3 in the league, and ranked 40th out of 78 D1 programs in RPI. Mediocrity won’t get you far in the postseason, but on the bright side, the Bison are built for a tough postseason matchup.

Despite scoring just ten goals in the league this season across six games, Bucknell only conceded eight. A 1-0 or 2-1 game wouldn’t be the least bit surprising for the Bison, regardless of the quality of opponent. Those are the types of games that can swing either way come playoff time with so much depending on the goalkeeper.

Keeper Emily Finn will be crucial if the Bison are to advance to the title game. The senior will be asked to stand on her head against a dynamic AU attack, but will get help from standout defenders Stephanie Dressler and Lexi Quick. The pairing are a tough physical matchup, and threats in corners as well. The Bison defense allowed more than one goal just once in league play, in a 4-0 loss to American, but also failed score in three separate league contests. Can the offense do enough?

For Bucknell, the path to victory is easy to identify but much harder to execute. Defend well, get a big performance from Finn and convert the corners. This strategy nearly paid dividends at New Balance Field on Saturday, as the Bison were defeated but were unlucky not to convert a corner on two separate occasions. Though BU had nothing to play for and only showed basic corners in the game, the performance showed the Bison should at the very least be able to provide a tight game against American.

#4 Holy Cross Crusaders (3-3, +2 goal differential)

The fate of the Crusaders in their first round matchup against BU rests solely on the shoulders of Marcia LaPlante. The best goalkeeper in the league saved an impressive 75 percent of the shots she faced, and helped her otherwise one-dimensional squad earn a second consecutive postseason appearance.

Holy Cross boasts the league’s top goalscorer in senior Maureen Connolly. The good news is she netted goals 19 times in 17 games – fifth-best in the nation. The bad news is she nearly outscored the rest of her team. Other Crusaders tallied just 21 goals between them, nine of which were assisted by Connolly herself.  If you stop Connolly, you stop Holy Cross.

The Crusaders battled admirably against American on the road this season. Holy Cross took a 2-0 lead into halftime but couldn’t hold on, falling 3-2 to the then No. 25 Eagles in Washington, D.C. Two weeks later, they were beaten 8-1 at home by the Terriers. Upending that very same BU team weeks later would be an improbable achievement to say the least, but last year American did struggled to squeak by the Crusaders in the first round.

In that game LaPlante put on a performance for the ages. Holy Cross lost by a single goal, 1-0, when it could have been 10-0. Laplante saved 17 shots as the Eagles peppered the cage all game long. Connolly registered 3 of her team’s 4 shots as the Crusaders were outshot 30-4. By the numbers, the Eagles should have blown them out, and yet the Crusaders nearly took the game to overtime. If LaPlante can repeat last year’s playoff heroics, they just might have a chance.

Predictions

I realize it’s boring, but I’m picking chalk for the first round. There really is no middle class in the world of Patriot League field hockey. There are the haves, and the have-nots. And BU and American are simply too rich in talent not to meet on Sunday for a title rematch, in a game I won’t even attempt to predict.

Were I to pick which team could come closer to an upset, though, I’d certainly choose the Bison. Two years ago, they took a great BU team to overtime in the first round, and last year they took a 1-1 tie with the Terriers into the final 30 seconds before losing in heartbreaking fashion. There is just something about the Bucknell Bison in the postseason, and they’ll be desperate for an upset after two straight years of heartbreak as the No. 4 seed.

Be sure to catch all the action on the Patriot League Network come Friday, with games beginning at noon (BU-Holy Cross) and 3 p.m. (American-Bucknell).

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A shameless plug to get you to watch my broadcast of the game on the PLN. Do it!!!

Photos courtesy of Greg Levinsky, Max Wolpoff, Andrew Mason, and Nicole Ericson. Check out photos of BU Field Hockey and other sports at WTBU’s Flickr page.

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