For the first time since 2011, the University of Connecticut field hockey team will not be champions of the Big East, defeating No. 15 Old Dominion in the semifinal before falling to No. 8 Liberty in the final.
Friday’s semifinal contest was an absolute nail-biter, starting off with a defensive showdown. In the first quarter, only one shot was taken, a Claire Jandewerth strike that was saved by ODU goalie Cam Macgillivray.
Things opened up a little more in the second, with Old Dominion putting more pressure on the defense, racking up four shots. Despite only getting one real chance at scoring in the period, UConn was able to capitalize late. The Huskies worked their way inside the circle and peppered Macgillivray with a Madi Herb shot that sent her sprawling on the turf. After a few seconds of the ball rattling around the goal, it was Jessica Dembrowski who had the finishing touch to put Connecticut up 1-0 at the half.
From the third quarter on, it really was the Old Dominion show, with the Monarchs controlling possession and pace of play for the majority of the half. They fired off another four shots in the third period to the Huskies’ zero in a dominant showing. The question everyone was asking was not if the game would be tied, but when.
Just three minutes into the fourth quarter, that question would be answered, as Marlon de Bruijne slipped one by UConn keeper Cheyenne Sprecher. After that equalizer, the Huskies were able to generate a little momentum to at least match the Monarchs step-for-step. Suddenly, for the first time all game, there were a ton of offensive looks for both sides.
With some great maneuvering by McKenna Sergi and the rest of the Husky offense, a corner was awarded with just 90 seconds left in regulation. In a very clutch score-or-overtime situation, it was Claire Jandewerth who put the nail in the coffin, finding the cage thanks to assists from Lindsay Dickenson and inbounder Jessica Dembrowski. UConn was finals-bound yet again.
Heading into the championship Sunday, the Huskies knew that they were up against an elite Liberty offense. To walk away with a 10th straight Big East Tournament title, they would have to put a few in the net.
And 30 seconds into the game, that’s just what they did, capitalizing on a Sophia Ugo shot. Or, so they thought, until a review session took away what could have been an early 1-0 UConn lead. Not including the shot from the reversed decision, there would be only two shots taken, both by the Flames, in a back-and-forth first half.
The third quarter started out with much of the same competitive play up until five minutes to go in the period, when Husky Nanne Eijkman received a yellow card for a push off of a Liberty player. The Flames sure took advantage of being up a player, with unanimous All-Big East First Team honoree Jill Bolton striking one off the back of the cage just 30 seconds into their golden opportunity. Despite taking the first lead of the game, Liberty continued to apply pressure on the UConn defense for the rest of those five minutes.
The fourth quarter became the last stand for the Huskies as they left it all on the field trying to score the equalizer. Despite a few corner chances in the 51st and 55th minutes, as well as taking Sprecher out of net in favor of an extra attacker, UConn’s efforts would prove unfruitful as the final score read 1-0.
While not the result the Huskies were looking for, there is a ton to like about the team’s weekend performance. They were able to hold off a very tough Old Dominion team on Friday while staying in stride with the Flames on Sunday. If Ugo’s goal hadn’t been overturned and one of those corners had gone their way, it could very easily have been UConn holding up the first place trophy. Instead, however, Connecticut’s season is likely over, as an 11-11 team will have a hard time receiving an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament.
There’s plenty to enjoy in regards to the overall season as well. Losing 2020 top scorer in Sophie Hamilton, plenty of Huskies stepped up and filled the role of goal-scorer, with the top three expected to return next year. One of those aforementioned three is Ugo, who recently was named to the all-conference first team and earned Big East Freshman of the Year Honors. Joining her on the first team was senior Abby Gooderham, while Sprecher, Dembrowski and Jandewerth received second team nods. In terms of the all-tournament team, Jandewerth, Sprecher and Gooderham all made the cut.
While going 11-11 on the year, the strength of schedule really killed UConn this year. Playing top tier competition week in and week out makes it hard for a team like this to get into a rhythm, but despite that, the Huskies were able to take down some high quality teams. Some memorable wins include the penalty shootout against No. 13 Harvard and a 2-0 shutout of No. 20 Old Dominion earlier in the year.
So yes, this may have been the most unsuccessful season in the past decade for Connecticut based on team achievements alone, but this team played with a ton of heart, left it all out there on the turf of George J. Sherman Family Sports Complex, and should look to move into next year still near the top of the food chain in both the Big East and the nation.