By Dylan Manfre
There is no denying Lori and Dan Hussong’s, head coach and assistant coach, ear-to-ear smile and candid laughter when they reminisce about the 2000 Rider field hockey season.
Lori Hussong pulled out a burgundy red chest with a team photo after Rider won the Northeast Conference (NEC) championship and grinned as if she was looking at a photo of their five children and the memories kept flooding back. It was filled with individual thank you cards from each of the players.
Rider finished the 2000 regular season at 5-5, losing to Siena in the final seconds of the last game. The Broncs snuck into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed because they allowed the fewest goals in conference play.
Then came top-seeded Monmouth in the semifinals, who were only shut out once in the regular season.
Monmouth was a team Rider had no business defeating, according to former midfielder Christine Cabarle.
Monmouth, a mammoth competition
“Our rival was Monmouth. If there was any team we wanted to beat it was Monmouth,” said Cabarle, who was a First-Team All-NEC selection in 2000. “They were well-coached and they had good stick work and great speed. And they were a culture of winning. So that’s powerful. When it’s part of the pedigree, it’s a very powerful thing.”
Was Rider intimidated?
“No,” Cabarle said with certainty. “Intimidated is not something I think any of us ever felt. … We were, by that point, pretty relentless.”
The game was personal for captain Tracey Speck (now Speck-Cistaro). She got chills reminiscing about the semifinal game, especially since Monmouth was her second choice. She spoke to Monmouth’s Head Coach Monica Morgan Levy in high school and was born and raised in West Long Branch, New Jersey.
Rider tightened its corners and worked on stick work in the final tune-up before the semifinal began. Multiple former players recalled the cold weekend and grey sky that added to the atmosphere of facing rival Monmouth.
Erika Tocce had one painfully distinct memory from the semifinal game. Darting for the ball, the official got in her way, accidentally colliding with Tocce’s left shoulder. The official sustained a broken rib.
“I remember the ref was literally in the path of the shot and I knew if I didn’t get there, I don’t know, and I rammed right into her,” Tocce said. “I felt so bad and I found out the next day I broke her rib. She didn’t call a foul on me because she was in the way. … I remember that vividly. I will never forget that.”
Jannette Freeberg scored in the early minutes of the game, forcing Rider to rely heavily on its defense. The goal gave the Broncs momentum, especially since they were the visitor. It was the only goal they needed to complete the 1-0 upset and Monmouth’s second shutout of the year.
Jen Cushinotto, nicknamed “Cush” by her teammates and coaches, immediately felt the mounting pressure in the cage throughout the game.
“There was a lot of excitement. We were together as a team. You know, right, just the feeling of, that anticipation as we were walking to the field, I remember walking to the field,” Cushinotto said. “And it was a little like, ‘We deserve to be here.’”
“We would be on a high, and then we would lose a game we should not have lost,” Cabarle said. “So it was very up-and-down for the athletes, and I’m sure for coach [Lori Hussong] and coach Dan [Hussong] it was probably incredibly exhausting. But I remember that final game against Monmouth, and I don’t think that was not a done deal til the whistle blew.”
Rider was a heavy underdog in the 2000 postseason, but the team felt it deserved to be there.
In 48 hours, the Broncs went from upsetting the No. 1 seed in the semifinals to hoisting the program’s first NEC championship after defeating defending champion Quinnipiac 1-0.
With under 30 seconds left in the Quinnipiac game, Lori Hussong said Cushinotto made a head-first diving save to secure the championship.
“We were just shocked. I think we were all shocked,” Lori Hussong said. “You know, we were all just smiling. We couldn’t wipe the smile off our face. But I think it made you think ‘OK, we got one, now let’s go for the second one.’”
To the players, Monmouth was the climax of the unprecedented season. That game in particular stuck out to them — mainly because of where the Broncs started that Cinderella season.
“If you compared that game with our first day of preseason it would be pretty unbelievable,” Cabarle said. “You would never look at that first practice, that first run, and be like ‘yeah this team’s going to win the final.’”
Cabarle, trying not to make the situation sound as bad as it was, chuckled when she said the first run of preseason practice “wouldn’t constitute as a run for some people.”
The goal of the practices was to get the best out of the players. And it is exactly what the Hussongs did.
“I love having someone who pushes me, I love having their passion for the game there,” Cushinotto said. “They expected a lot from us, they had very high expectations. I’m sure it exhausted them, but they got out of us … the potential that I don’t think another coach could have gotten out of us. And in the years previous had not been able to pull out of the teams [they coached].”
Lori Hussong and Dan Hussong came to Rider after successful careers in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district. The Broncs teams before 2000 were nowhere near what the winning atmosphere the Hussongs were used to. The Hussongs had high expectations.
“We were young coaches. So you know, even though we were older than those girls, it was a new experience for us and so we came in as authority figures. But I think we were also open, like, we knew we were going to learn a lot,” Dan Hussong said. “And we were going to learn under fire. As we went in, I think we went in kind of as an open book … we had a plan. And we were going to stick to the plan. But we were also going to have a plan B and a plan C because plan A wasn’t working. You’ve got to make adjustments. And I think that you know, we were adjustable even though we still stuck to the principal.”
Some of the players were not used to the heightened intensity level either. Cushinotto made it to the New Jersey championship game as a senior at Ocean City High School, but went 4-14 in 1999 as a freshman at Rider.
Tricia Carroll, the head coach before Lori Hussong, was a dual head coach of the Rider softball team. Tocce, who played under Carroll for her first three seasons, said field hockey wasn’t Carroll’s “baby.” She was more focused on coaching softball, whereas the Hussongs devoted their lives to field hockey.
“She was really good at softball,” Tocce said. “Field hockey was secondary … [When Lori Hussong came,] we got a coach who lived and breathed field hockey.”
As she sat in front of her computer screen, Cabarle laughed when she heard Dan Hussong described the 2000 team as “unorganized little fireballs” in a prior interview with The Rider News.
Cushinotto said that was an accurate description of the group.
“They wanted to be coached, they wanted to be successful,” Lori Hussong said. “They just needed a little bit of direction and how to get that accomplished because the talent was there. But the guidance wasn’t there. They were very receptive to us coming because they desperately wanting to be successful to our program.”
Desperate may be too soft a word to articulate their drive and insurmountable hunger.
When asked who the fireball was, Cabarle admitted it was “probably” her.
“I’m very, very aggressive,” Cabarle said. “And I was an uncontrolled aggressive, when [Dan Hussong] says uncontrolled fireballs, that’s a nice way of putting things.”
Lori Hussong said Cabarle was “the ultimate competitor.”
Cushinotto called Cabarle a natural leader. She rallied the troops when they needed to be uplifted. She does not remember the game it happened, but Cushinotto recalled a time when she was feeling down during a game and Cabarle snapped her right out of it.
“She grabbed me by the facemask. And she looked at me, ‘We need you, you’ve got this,’” Cushinotto said. “She knew what to say in the moment. And it snapped me out of it. And you know, she did that for all of us. She really did. She could really snap us out of it and pull us along.”
Ironically, Cabarle, who ended up making First Team All-NEC in 2000, was almost not a member of the 2000 team. She played field hockey before college but “didn’t want to know anything field hockey-related,” when she got to Rider.
She had a communications class with Speck-Cistaro, who gave her the final push to join the team.
“I do remember her personality, her hard work that I saw in the classroom,” said Speck-Cistaro, who was named Second-Team All-NEC in 2000. “And she just had that athletic look to her. I had spoken to her that she did previously play, and I’m like, ‘We need more players.’ We were a small team. I was like, ‘You need to come out,’ And she ended up coming out.”
The team bonded through its intense practices and fierce runs all leading up to its first win of the regular season against West Chester University.
“They were euphoric afterward. And we were saying, you know, “Do you feel the difference?’ I mean, it’s a 1-0 game either way. But it’s so much better when you get the one and the other team doesn’t get a goal. You know you feel terrific. … and I think they caught on to that,” Dan Hussong said. “So I think they went from being kind of scattered in their effort to now learning, ‘Hey, let’s play together, you know, play good with your teammates around you, and good things are gonna happen.’”
And they did. The team of unorganized little fireballs went on to defeat Quinnipiac in the 2000 NEC championship 1-0 with Speck-Cistaro scoring the winning goal with less than two minutes remaining.
Where are they now?
During the spring of 2001, the players came back for the alumni game between the graduating class of 2000 and the 2001 team. To the surprise of the Hussongs, the players treated it as an actual game while it was meant to be a light-hearted scrimmage.
“You know, they weren’t in game shape like the 2001 kids, but they were battling like it was for a championship and we were like, ‘Calm down. There’s no trophy at the end of this game,’” Dan Hussong said. “You know, we were just afraid someone could get hurt because they were fierce competitors. And they were ready to come and defend their honor.”
Now the players have families of their own, but are still connected to the field hockey program in some way.
Freeberg’s daughter Jade was a 2019 graduate of the field hockey program and wore her mom’s No. 11 jersey.
Cabarle was the head coach of the Hussongs’ daughter, Colby, when she was a senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro South. The Hussongs were also at Cabarle’s wedding last summer.
Cushinotto’s children met the Hussongs at an alumni event in 2014.
One of the final times they were all together was their end of season banquet. Coming off of the championship, the Hussongs only knew them for about six months.
“The banquet is so touching because it was full of laughter. But there was a lot of pride … they were really like, thankful for being driven hard, being brought together,” Dan Hussong said. “And the banquet was so nice because when the seniors spoke, they were kind of like feeling ‘I wish I was a freshman, you guys, you’re lucky, you’re going to experience more of this and we’re moving on,’ but it was touching to us really, … But they were really speaking from their heart to each other.”
From the undeniably sincere gaze in her eye, Lori Hussong probably felt those same emotions as she looked at the glass-protected photo of the team who got the biggest upset in Rider field hockey history.
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