With an eighth-straight Big East championship last week and the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, this season already felt like a success for the UConn field hockey team. But with the sky-high expectations of the program, a stunning loss on the verge of the Final Four still felt like a crushing disappointment.
No. 2 UConn (19-4, 7-0 Big East) was eliminated by No. 8 Princeton on Sunday in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, a frustrating 2-0 loss on the Huskies’ home turf. The Huskies were held to just five shots on goal and struggled in the final third to convert opportunities all game against a stout Princeton (15-4, 7-0 Ivy League) defense.
“Princeton was terrific today, they get a lot of credit, however I thought that the quality of our play was exceptional,” an emotional head coach Nancy Stevens said on Sunday. “We couldn’t have asked for more from the team in terms of how to play the game.”
The Huskies dominated the first quarter, not allowing a single shot on goal. But the second quarter firmly belonged to the Tigers, holding UConn without a shot and cashing in on a penalty corner to take a 1-0 halftime lead.
After a scoreless third, Princeton doubled its lead early in the fourth quarter, and UConn never answered. Even once Stevens pulled goalkeeper Cheyenne Sprecher and a Princeton yellow card gave UConn a two-man advantage, the Tigers’ defense held fast.
It was a heartbreakingly abrupt ending for a team just two days removed from an emotional comeback victory over No. 25 Fairfield in the first round. UConn trailed 1-0 late in the second half until a brilliant goal from senior Svea Boker equalized the score. Then, not even a minute into overtime, freshman Sophie Hamilton delivered, firing the game-winner home before being swarmed by her teammates. It was Stevens’ 700th victory, the most in collegiate field hockey history.
On Sunday, the Huskies found themselves on the other end of the celebration, and could only watch as the Tigers jumped around in joy. Earlier in the season, UConn defeated Princeton in overtime in Princeton. The Tigers got their revenge in the Elite Eight.
“Two top 10 teams, we beat them at their place in overtime, they had the better of us today,” Stevens said. “If we played 10 times, they would probably win five, we would win five, and that’s exciting, it’s the Elite Eight.”
Seniors Boker, Antonia Tiedtke and Abby Lucas depart UConn as 2017 national champions, eight-time Big East champs (regular season and tournament) and a slew of other accolades under their belts. Though she was stifled on Sunday, Boker played at a world-class level all season, scoring 23 goals and earning Big East Offensive Player of the Year.
“It was an unforgettable time, every single person who’s involved in UConn field hockey has done a tremendous job in making us better players and better people in general,” Boker said. “I’m really grateful to have been a part of this program.”
Tiedtke followed a phenomenal regular season with an even stronger postseason. In both tournament games, she was flying around the field, seemingly there to contest every pass or dribble in UConn’s defensive zone.
“It’s heartbreaking now, especially when it means so much to you, but really like Nancy said, we can really just be proud of ourselves,” Tiedtke said. “Looking at the past four years, everything that we accomplished, and just the growth, even in this season, that our team went through. We should really just be proud of ourselves and look back at all the amazing memories we made together.”
Stevens was emotional when talking about the trio of seniors after the game, but made sure to remind her players of the accolades they’ve already accumulated.
“Hey, we wanna win every game we play, and we prepare to win every game we play, but that’s very difficult to do,” Stevens said. “As I told the team after the game, 18 teams enter this tournament and only one ends their season on a win. Fortunately for our seniors, they’ve done it: They’ve been 23-0, they’ve gotten us to four NCAA tournaments and hopefully in time, the disappointment of today will be far outweighed by the terrific careers they’ve had.”
It was a painful ending to a promising season, but if Steven’s resume is any indication, it’s pretty certain that UConn will once again be in the national title conversation next fall.