Field hockey joins NEC after seven years in MAAC

By Dylan Manfre

Before hosting Lehigh on Aug. 30, it had been 2,476 days since Rider played a game as a member of the Northeast Conference (NEC).

Discussions took place between the NEC’s current members about bringing field hockey back as a championship sport in early 2018. NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris said there was mutual interest between the schools that did play field hockey in the conference and those who did not.

The sport was formally reinstated for the 2019-2020 academic year after it sponsored field hockey from 1998-2012.

“We’ve been evaluating the landscape changes and probably since Wagner announced they were adding [field hockey in January 2018] is when things really kicked into gear. Long Island University (LIU) had added field hockey and then Wagner so I think that was the impetus to have that conversation,” said Morris. “It’s nice to have everything under the NEC umbrella when you can. The governance happens easier and your student-athletes are all wearing the NEC logo. In the end it’s a field hockey decision — for those [schools who have field hockey] — they wanted to make sure the rest of the league was supportive of that knowing we’re adding another championship sport to the mix.”

The Broncs are one of five former Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) teams who joined the NEC as associate members. The other teams included Sacred Heart, Bryant, LIU and Fairfield. Extending an invitation to Rider was an easy decision for Morris, who said there are numerous benefits of playing under a conference affiliation.

“You have that built in schedule that guarantees you home games each year and then you fill in the rest of the schedule with some nonconference opponents. Being a part of a conference, especially in a sport like field hockey, is almost a necessity,” Morris said. “Rider has been no stranger to NEC field hockey, I think they’ve won [the championship] six times. They’re a very strong program with a long history of success and we’re excited to have them as a part of our family.”

Another team joining the NEC is Merrimack College, located in North Andover, Massachusetts. The Warriors are reclassifying from a Division II program to Division I and have a four-year window to complete the transition, according to Morris.

Within that window, Merrimack is ineligible to make the NEC and NCAA championship, which means, should it finish as the No. 4 seed in the four-team playoff field, the fifth place team would take its spot in the standings.

Head Coach Lori Hussong is the only member of Rider who has NEC experience. She helped usher in six conference titles, including the last three championships which preceded the dismantle of the sport under the NEC in 2012. Senior midfielder Tess Coorens felt that a contagious sense of optimism surrounds the team as it heads into its first season back in the NEC.

“I’m very excited for conference games,” said Coorens, who led the team in goals in 2018. “The MAAC was always very competitive… I think everyone was really on the same level, you never really knew who was going to swing. Now that we moved to the NEC, there are some new teams coming in and I’m excited for the different competition. I think our team is really good this year and we have a lot of potential.”

A lot of the potential starts with the nine-women freshmen class Hussong recruited to Lawrenceville, which included a pair of high school teammates, a goalkeeper from Canada and sophomore midfielder Tess van Ommeren’s kid sister, Kiki van Ommeren.

“We have a couple of freshmen who are really great ball handlers who are good under pressure as well,” Hussong said. “We add them to the mix and it’s going to be a good combination. We have a couple of really good U.S. players. One is Sierra Giuliano. She’s a midfielder but we’re playing her on the attack with [sophomore forward] Carly [Brosious] and they have a sixth sense together. When she came for our clinics the two of them had a very good passing combination and worked well with each other.”

Due to some transfers, such as Gianna Morganti, who now attends Stockton to major in nursing, and Brook Gastin, who transferred to Marist, as well as the graduation of Jess Randazzo and Allison Amen, Hussong acknowledged the team is still very young. However, Rider has a handful of experienced players returning who can keep everybody on the same page, according to junior goalkeeper Lena Vandam. 

“I think if we inform everybody really good­­­­ — because obviously for the freshmen, it’s a new game and there are always changes — I feel like if everybody knows what they’re doing and keeps their head in the game, we’ll have a good start,” Vandam said.

Rider received its first look at the new game format in its season-opener, hosting Lehigh. Division I field hockey now plays four 15-minute quarters instead of two 35-minute halves.

The Broncs’ young offensive attack put up 14 shots to Lehigh’s nine in their 1-0 loss, but Mountain Hawks goalie Maddie Kahn was a brick wall and recorded nine saves in her collegiate debut.

“We had a lot of chances in the circle that we didn’t cash in on and you only get so many chances to really put the ball in,” Hussong said. “They had a really good keeper and we needed to move the ball around and we weren’t effective in doing that today.”

A potential goal from Brosious was waved off because the ball hit her leg before reaching the back of the cage.

Coorens said that correcting the mistakes and missed opportunities starts in the team’s practices.

“Now that we know how intense it actually is — even though we’ve had two scrimmages — everybody in practice has to be more intense so we actually cut hard to the ball and get those loose balls so that we do it in the game,” she said. “If you do it in practice it’ll happen in a game. It’s all about learning and repeating.”

The Broncs played without the services of 2018 MAAC assist leader, sophomore midfielder Tess van Ommeren, who is “day-to-day” with an injury, according to Hussong.

Rider will play the second of eight home games on Sept. 6 against La Salle University at 4 p.m. A win would put Hussong at 250 for her career and make her one of only 15 other active Division I coaches to reach the mark.

Follow Dylan Manfre on Twitter for the latest on Rider field hockey.

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