By Bill Morgal '06-'10M
The overarching goal for Shippensburg Field Hockey in 2017 was attainable, but also unprecedented. The Raiders planned to defend their national championship.
To do that, a veteran squad had to transition. Hall of Fame Head Coach Bertie Landes announced her retirement after the season, and Tara Zollinger arrived in February as head coach.
“The first time I met them on my interview (players) asked me, ‘We want to win a national championship again; are you going to help us get there?’” Zollinger said. “When I took over, I said, ‘It’s going to be really hard, and there are going to be ups and downs.’ They knew that we needed to make changes, but at the same time, be able to keep the traditions and keep the culture they worked so hard for three years to create.”
As predicted, there were plenty of bumps and challenges along the way. But the end result was everything that the Raiders desired. On a cold, grey November Sunday in Louisville, Kentucky, Shippensburg posted a 4-1 victory over number one seed LIU Post to claim the NCAA Division II National Championship.
The Raiders struck early, and then often—blitzing the Pioneers with a series of offensive strikes. Senior Madison Scarr, the SU Student Government Association president, scored on the first shot of the game less than ten minutes in with a redirect at the edge of the goal.
Shippensburg scored three times in the second half, beginning with a penalty stroke converted by freshman Jazmin Petrantonio, a recruit from Argentina who was named the 2017 Atlantic Region Player of the Year. LIU Post, in search of offense, pulled their goalie in favor of a kicking back with 12:40 remaining. But the Raiders added goals down the stretch by senior Brooke Sheibley and sophomore Rosalia Cappadora to clinch the win.
“This is surreal,” Zollinger said after the game. “It’s amazing, and I am so proud of our senior leadership and our young ones who came on. We had a vision, and we had a goal, and every single day at practice we knew what our vision was. We knew what our goal was, and today we got it done, and it’s an amazing feeling.”
Of that veteran leadership, Shippensburg boasted eleven seniors in 2017. The class finished with
a 65-17 record, three NCAA Championship appearances, and back-to-back national championships.
“Since our senior class is so big, there were always different opinions and feelings going around the team. But we really have one goal, and every game we’re always on the same page with the game plan and how we’re going to execute it,” senior captain Kylie Huffman said.
“We really brought that in with the underclassmen to make sure they understand how Ship Hockey operates.”
Huffman said the coaching staff provided positive change. “They brought new ideas and new trends starting in hockey to our world, especially with our scouting report. That was a whole new thing that we saw, and I think that just excelled our hockey even more. So, I’m really happy about where we are right now.”
Defensively, the Raiders allowed eight shots or less to all three of their opponents in the NCAA Tournament, a feat it accomplished just six times all year entering the postseason. Redshirt junior goalkeeper Ally Mooney, an All-Tournament Team selection, finished with twelve saves over the course of the NCAA Playoffs.
“With the new coaching staff, we definitely changed up our tactics on the field here and there, but I think we came together as a defensive unit and really supported each other,” Mooney said. “I think just having faith in each other and knowing that we work together well is how we got there.”
The victory also resulted in Zollinger becoming the first person to win an NCAA Division II National Championship in her first year as a collegiate head coach.
“I have a really great group of athletes who were willing to work incredibly hard,” she said. “Whatever division or whatever level you are playing at, whenever you have people who are willing to work and set their mind on something, it’s a coach’s dream. I am so excited. It’s amazing that our senior leadership was able to get it done two years in a row and make this dream for our university. I am so excited about where we have yet to go, but these women and the legacy they left, it’s incredible.”
In terms of legacies, the victory also is a continuation of the #FlyHigh22 tradition that became a fundamental foundation of the field hockey squad as it plays in memory of Amanda Strous.
“Going into this game, this was the last field Amanda (Strous) played on her senior year,” Sheibley said. “So, knowing that, I knew that I had to lay it all out,I had to support my teammates, and I knew my teammates were going to support me whenever things weren’t going my way.”
Passion and hard work were evident all season long, especially through the determination of junior team member Megan Hart. Diagnosed with leukemia in September, SU rallied around its teammate and adopted the mantra of #HartStrong during her recovery.
“Meg’s our biggest motivator. When we found out about her diagnosis, we had a team meeting and we talked about what we needed to do to support her,” Zollinger said. “Then also we talked about from here on out, every single game is for Meg. We talked about getting a game ball to be able to give her, and we wanted to be able to write every single date of every single win that we have on that ball to be able to give to her. She’s been such a motivation for us.”
Despite the many layers of adversity, and the myriad trials and tribulations that a season can provide, Shippensburg stood firm in wanting to accomplish its main goal. And, when it came down to it, they did just that.
“It was a give and take, but in the end, we had trust in each other,” Zollinger said. “We knew what our vision was, and we knew what needed to be done to make that vision happen.”
Bill Morgal ’06-’10m is SU’s sports information director.