It’s been a phenomenal start for the UConn field hockey team, following up last weekend’s 2-0 performance in Stanford with two more ranked wins in Storrs this weekend against No. 19 Rutgers and No. 6 Harvard. Here are the major takeaways from a dominant weekend at Sherman.
Defense wins games
It was back-to-back shutouts for UConn (4-0) this weekend, defeating Rutgers (2-2) 2-0 on Friday, followed by a 3-0 victory over Harvard (1-1) on Sunday. In four games, the Huskies have allowed just three total goals against some of the strongest offenses in the country — but this weekend was especially dominant.
“You’re not going to win championships by giving up goals,” head coach Nancy Stevens said after Sunday’s win. “Our first priority is to win the conference championship, and these last two defensive performances showed us that now we’re where we need to be. We like playing shutout hockey.”
Playing in drenching rains, Friday’s game was sloppy on both sides, though the Huskies still limited the Scarlet Knights to just six shots on goal. It was different story but same result on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, as UConn was clinical and received a superb performance from sophomore goalkeeper Cheyenne Sprecher, recording five saves including a pair of high degree of difficulty ones in the first half.
“I thought that Cheyenne was outstanding the entire weekend,” Stevens said. “In the first half especially, her saves were critically important, those easily could’ve been goals.”
After Sunday’s win, Sprecher was quick to thank the defense and the entire team in front of her for the team’s defensive dominance.
“We’ve been playing really together as a team. It’s not just about the defense holding it down, it’s each layer,” Sprecher, the reigning Big East Freshman of the Year said on Sunday. “Last year was exciting, playing behind some of my good friends, but this year, we’re bringing the same intensity.”
Though Sprecher deserves much of the credit, the entire defensive unit played excellently, holding Rutgers and Harvard to a combined 0-of-9 on penalty corners. Last week’s Big East Defensive Player of the Week Jess Dembrowski had another great weekend, and Kourtney Kennedy continues to be the reliable, levelheaded anchor of the defense.
“She’s small in stature, but she plays big,” Stevens said of Kennedy. “She’s the defensive wall, but her demeanor is just as important. She’s very calm and deliberate, and when things get hectic and chaotic, we have someone who is a flatliner and can settle the defense down. Aside from her talent and skill, that quality is very important.”
Huskies bite back
Harvard, who went to the Elite Eight last season, did not go down without a fight in Sunday’s game, and that included some increasing chippiness as the game went on. A player from each team earned a green card in the final quarter, and it was very physical on both sides throughout. After the game, Stevens said she welcomes that kind of fight from her players.
“Oh, we love that,” Stevens said on her team’s physical play. “It takes physical courage to play our sport because the ball’s zipping around at 70, 80 miles an hour and you have limited equipment on. We look for players who have physical courage, we look for players who enjoy the physical contact. When it gets to that level, we know that we’ve frustrated the other team, and that’s their answer to that frustration, and we can match that player-for-player.”
Sunday’s physicality will serve as quality preparation for next weekend’s matchups at No. 7 Michigan and Michigan State, two games which promise to be just as chippy.
“Big Ten hockey is physical,” Stevens said. “So I think this Harvard game is great preparation…We’re a good road team, but the level of performance has to be as it was today.”
Past and future
Sunday’s game also marked the annual Alumni Game, as members of UConn’s 15 Final Four and five national championship teams were honored at halftime. All five national championship trophies were on full display, perhaps offering some added inspiration to the current team.
“It’s really cool seeing everyone from the past,” Kennedy said on Sunday. “Nancy talks about playing for the people behind us, and it’s not just about the team present but they’re just as much a part of it as we are. It’s a legacy.”
A three-time national champion herself, Stevens is well aware of what it takes to reach the peak. With four dominant wins over ranked opponents to start the season, the ceremony provided a glimpse at what this team seems now fully capable of accomplishing.
“No pressure, right?” Stevens joked after the game. “We were thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, why are we playing the No. 6 team in the country on Alumni Weekend, aren’t you supposed to bring in a team you know you’re going to beat?’ So we’re thrilled that we had such a great performance against a very talented Harvard team… It couldn’t have been a better outcome.”
Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.