500 And Counting
You could feel the admiration and warmth from outside the stadium as Penn State Coach and former Olympian Charlene Morett-Curtis soaked up the congratulations after her Penn State team won the Big Ten Conference Field Hockey tournament and qualified for the NCAA championships in the process.
For the Penn State coach, the win over pre-tournament favourites Maryland was a particularly memorable victory as it was her 500th win with the Penn State Nittany Lions. Morett-Curtis started coaching the Penn State University team back in 1987 and has won numerous titles in that time, but this one was special, particularly as Penn did not enjoy a successful 2015 season. To do it at the Big Ten – one of the most prestigious hockey tournaments in the USA college sport’s calendar – made it even more precious.
Sport in the USA is largely dominated by the college programme and one of the highlights of the college competition structure is the Big Ten Conference (B1G), the oldest Division I collegiate athletic conference in the United States.
The conference, consists of 14 members and includes a flagship public university from each of 11 states stretching from New Jersey to Nebraska, as well as two additional public land grant schools and a private university. Both the men’s and women’s programme has 14 sports, although hockey is only played by the women’s teams, where nine of the 14 members participate.
The Big Ten Conference was established in 1895 when Purdue University president James H. Smart and representatives from the University of Chicago, University of Illinois, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, and University of Wisconsin gathered together to set policies aimed at regulating intercollegiate athletics.
Hockey entered the programme in 1982 and since then the competition has been dominated by Maryland, who have eight titles, as well as three runners-up medals and 17 third place finishes.
With their win in this year’s edition of the tournament, Penn State move to within one title of the Maryland side with seven titles to their name: Penn State’s last win was in 2012.
The final itself was a cagey affair with the top-seeded side, Maryland Terrapins, taking the lead in the 26th minute through a cheeky flipped shot over the ‘keeper from Emma Rissinger, after she received a great pass from Big Ten Player of the Year Welma Luus. Penn State’s Aurelia Meijer scored the equaliser just two minutes into the second half, slapping home a penalty corner, before Gini Bramley provided the game-winning goal in the 44th minute. Bramley’s goal was a classy reverse stick shot that left the ‘keeper with no chance of reaching the ball.
Speaking after the game Aurelia Meijer said: “There are no words for this, I feel awesome and terrific. When we won the penalty corner (from which she scored the first Penn goal), I said ‘Aurelia, you just have to put the ball in the goal’. It was a great feeling when it went in.”
The player from the Netherlands added: “I am so proud of our coach, Charlene Morett-Curtis, this is her 500th win. It is not always fun, last year was hard because we didn’t do as well as we should, but I think that adversity and those tough times has helped us to win today.”
Gini Bramley, who won Most Valuable Player of the tournament, said: “We have been working so hard for this. We have spent hours on the field, practising our corners, working on our technique and fitness. It is really rewarding to see the hard work pay off.
The delighted coach, Char Morett-Curtis, could barely speak as she had gone hoarse with shouting. She managed to pay tribute to everyone involved: “I am so proud of the team. We just kept our composure and every member of the team has contributed to the win. The players are very unselfish, they have a competitive spirit. They wanted to have a much more successful season than last year. My staff have been so supportive and done such a great job supporting this team.
“Compared to last year, we were, by far, a more experienced and cohesive team. We had a trip to Holland in May, which greatly enhanced our competitive spirit and added to our team bonding. Our preparation all season was about team play. We never had to focus on a few players to carry us… it was a team effort of success all year long and we maintained that philosophy throughout the tournament.”
For another member of the Penn State team, Moira Putsch, the last few months have been a race against time. The player underwent a second bout of surgery for an ACL injury but she was on the pitch for the final. She said: “From pre-season until now everything has been focused on this moment. Our coach has been a rock for me. Whether it is at school or something personal, you just get the feeling that she is always there for you.”
Putsch, who is a second year student, spoke about the successful combination between herself and Meijer: “Aurelia Meijer and myself have so much chemistry, both on and off the team, that translates onto the pitch.”
Both Maryland and Penn State had made smooth progress through to the final.
In their first match, Penn State faced seventh seeds Indiana, where they notched up a 3-1 win. The scorers were Gini Bramley with two goals and Shay Cannon with the third. The Nittany Lions dominated play with 23 shots to Indiana’s six attempts.
Meanwhile, Maryland were setting out their stall as they dashed to a 2-0 lead over Rutger Scarlet Knights in their opening game. The Scarlet Knights were caught napping by the explosive Maryland strikers as Kelee Lepage took just 25 seconds to get on the scoresheet. Her goal, a neat chip over the ‘keeper Shevaun Hayes, was followed just a minute later by a belter from Madison McGuire.
Head coach to the Scarlet Knights, Meredith Civico paid credit to Maryland, saying: “I think they caught us on our heels with two early goals, but we fought really hard to battle back after that. I'm really proud of this team, I'm proud of how they fought, and I'm proud of this senior class for all their leadership.”
Maryland’s opponents in the semi-finals were Northwestern University Wildcats. The Wildcats had enjoyed a good run to the semi-finals. They buried the fifth-seeds Iowa 3-1 in their quarter-final match. Goals for the Wildcats came from Dominique Masters (2) and Isobel Flens, while Iowa’s Sophie Plasteras put one past the Cats’ ‘keeper Lindsay von der Luft to reduce the goal difference. Much to their disappointment, Northwestern’s dreams of a place in the final were ended they came up short against the Maryland side.
Tracey Fuchs, head coach to Northwestern Wildcats said: “We had 10 seniors graduating from the previous year’s team, so we did well. Obviously, we were disappointed that we did not make the NCAA tournament but we hope to vie for a spot next year.
“We know that many games this year could have gone either way, and that five of eight of our loses were lost in overtime. We will have a strong and competitive team so we look forward to a successful season.”
In the other half of the semi-final draw, Penn State’s semi-final opponents were Michigan. The Michigan side have a good record at the Big Ten Conference. Overtime they reached the Big Ten, they have made the final. This was not to be their year as they faced a Penn State side determined to progress.
This was a match that went down to the wire, with Moira Putsch scoring the only goal of the match with just three minutes left on the clock. Despite the low score, Lions goalkeeper, Jenny Rizzo didn’t see much action, making only three saves during the match.
For anyone doubting just how important the Big 10 tournament is to hockey players in the US college system, Lauren Burke, assistant coach to the Scarlet Knights explained: ‘If a team wins the Big 10 Tournament they gain an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. The NCAA tournament is when 16 teams compete for the national championship, amassed of the 12 conferences across the country. The Big Ten Conference is the premier conference in the country. All Big Ten teams competing are at an elite level. For us, qualifying and competing is a huge accomplishment.
“Athletes recruited to be in the Big 10 are among the elite high school players in the country. Players in this conference undoubtedly will develop and look to compete at international level. These players are given access to the best facilities, performance coaches, sport science staff, nutrition experts, and academic support services in comparison to other teams in the country. This gives athletes in the Big 10 an advantage in player development because they have everything they need to be successful on and off the field- thus allowing them to succeed at an elite level. In addition, the Big Ten specifically provides it's athletes with experience in video referral and is exposing players to FIH and EHL certified umpires.”
NCAA Update: despite going to the NCAA tournament with high hopes after their dominant performance at the Big Ten, Char Morett-Curtis and her team were unable to advance beyond round one as they lost 2-1 to Princeton.