The Mack Report

Merrimack Field Hockey Proves Doubters Wrong in 2013

Jessica Otis

With all that the Merrimack College field hockey team had accomplished over the previous two seasons, it was no surprise to see the Warriors garner a great deal of respect prior to the start of the 2013 campaign.

After all, it was Merrimack who boasted the longest active streak of consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances of any team in the North Region. And it was Merrimack that had reached consecutive Northeast-10 Conference title games and claimed back-to-back regular season crowns in the two years prior, putting the Warriors in elite company compared to the rest of the conference and region.

And when Merrimack was pegged as the preseason favorite to win the conference and garnered respect as one of the top teams in the country by coaches nationwide, it came as a surprise to very few, despite the great deal of talent and leadership that the Warriors had graduated from the previous season.

So when the Warriors stumbled out of the gate by losing three of their first five games, including a four-goal setback on the road against an Adelphi team that they had dismantled in the playoffs a year ago, as well as a 3-1 defeat against an upstart Stonehill squad on their home turf, many from around the league and the region figured that, perhaps, Merrimack’s losses to graduation were a bit too much to recover from after all.

Just like that, the Warriors were off the regional and national radar, and standing at 2-3 on the young season, were at a crossroads. Were they truly too young and too inexperienced, and were those graduation losses too much to recover from? Or was the slow start a blessing in disguise, allowing the young team to learn from their mistakes, grow with each passing game and mold into, yet again, one of the top teams in the country?

Sure enough, it was the latter.

Instead of wilting under the early season adversity, the Warriors fought back and reasserted their place among the nation’s elite. It took time, and more importantly, wins. But they began to pile up, one after another.

Suddenly, Merrimack had won four in a row and had the stage set for one of the biggest games of the year: a trip to Long Island to face undefeated and fifth-ranked LIU Post in a Sunday afternoon conference clash. While the Warriors fell just short – a 4-3, double-overtime setback – if there was one thing that they took away from the loss was that they had just given one of the top teams in the country everything they could handle. And more importantly, it gave them the confidence that sparked a seven-game winning streak to close out the regular season.

During that 12-game run that saw Merrimack post an 11-1 record, the Warriors outscored the opposition by a 47-12 margin, showcasing the continued growth of the backbone of the team – its defense – as the season progressed.

Led by senior Sarah Dunbar (Hubbardston, Mass.) and junior Katie Bishop (Conway, N.H.), Merrimack’s defense took center stage during that 12-game stretch, posting five shutouts along the way with sophomore Madison Davis (San Jose, Calif.) growing more and more confident in net with each passing contest.

With the defense getting better and better, the offense – long considered one of the best in the country in recent years – began to open up. While the usual leaders such as seniors Candace Waldie (North Andover, Mass.) and Jessica Otis (Pittsford, N.Y.) were powering along with impressive numbers, the rest of the offensive unit spread the wealth. Sophomores Katrina Squeri (Chelmsford, Mass.) and Christine Zubkus (Dover, N.H.) played huge roles along the way, while rookies such asNicole Bradley (Essex, Mass.)Maura Doyle (Merrimac, Mass.) and Kaitlin McCauley (Newburyport, Mass.) all contributed plenty, as well.

And with the team improving with each passing game, all eyes turned to the regular season finale at third-ranked and undefeated Stonehill, who had already handed Merrimack a 3-1 loss earlier in the year. This time, though, Merrimack got the last laugh, with an incredible defensive effort highlighted by an 11-save performance by Davis that powered the Warriors to a 1-0 road win, securing a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed for the NE-10 Championships.

Appropriately enough, Merrimack and Stonehill met yet again in the NE-10 Semifinals; this time, though, the Skyhawks soared out to a 3-0 lead before the Warriors charged back in the second half to pull within one. Despite dominating the final 35 minutes, the early deficit was too much to overcome, as Merrimack was denied a third consecutive birth in the NE-10 title game.

Fortunately, Merrimack had done more than enough in the second half of the year to earn itself an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row. And by sheer coincidence, it was Merrimack and Stonehill who were pegged to face each other in the First Round of the Big Dance in Easton.

In what quickly became one of the most exciting games for the Warriors in recent memory, Merrimack charged ahead by two goals only to watch the Skyhawks roar right back with three quick goals early in the second half. This time, though, the Warriors would get that elusive third goal after Bradley tied it up in the 63rd minute, sending the game to overtime.

In the sudden-victory session, less than 10 minutes in, Zubkus took a feed from Otis and found the back of the cage to give the Warriors one of their most dramatic wins in program history, sending Merrimack back to the Final Four for the third straight season in the process.

With undefeated and third-ranked LIU Post waiting in the National Semifinals, Merrimack made the trek down to Virginia Beach, Va., to take on the Pioneers. Seeking their first-ever appearance in the National Championship game while looking to avenge that earlier 4-3, double-overtime loss, the Warriors more than held their own against the best offensive unit in the country and more or less controlled large portions of the game.

But the Pioneers tallied the first goal of the game with just over five minutes remaining, and despite a late push, that would represent the only marker scored by either side, as the Warriors were denied a berth in the national title game, 1-0.

Still though, for head coach Anne Rounce, who had accomplished so much already through her first five seasons in transforming the program into a perennial contender in the region, the turnaround that for other programs could potentially take an entire season instead lasted just days.

The fact that Merrimack had gone from losing by four goals (5-1) against one team to defeating that very same team by six (7-1) exactly two weeks later reflects not only on the tremendous leadership from the team’s leaders to keep them composed through the trying times, but only reflects on arguably Rounce’s most impressive coaching campaigns yet.

And while the Warriors were denied the title and hardware they have sought since 2011, at the individual level, Merrimack garnered plenty of respect, highlighted by Otis being named the NFHCA North Region Player of the Year, becoming the first player in program history to do so. She, along with Dunbar, Waldie and Bishop, garnered Longstreth/NFHCA All-American status as well, while the Warriors saw a league-best eight total players honored on the NE-10 All-Conference Teams.

The Class of 2014 – Otis, Dunbar, Waldie and Lindsay Grover (Barnstable, Mass.) – helped mold Merrimack into a dominant program over the last four years and leave with several marks in the school record book. Waldie graduates second in career points, points per game, goals scored and assists and first in game-winning goals. Otis, meanwhile, ranks fifth in total points, game-winning goals and points per game, sixth in goals scored and third in assists. Finally, Dunbar will go down as one of the best defenders in school history and ranks third all-time in defensive saves.

Merrimack moves forward to 2014 with plenty to build on and with sights set yet again on even greater heights after returning to the NCAA Semifinals for the third straight season this fall.

This is the fourth in a series of recaps summarizing a successful fall season at Merrimack.

December 9: Women’s Soccer
December 11: 
Football
December 13: Men’s Soccer
December 16: Field Hockey
December 18: Cross Country
December 20: Women’s Volleyball