By Jacob Tiger
Coming off a Northeast Conference (NEC) championship in the spring, Rider field hockey had high hopes for the 2021 fall season.
The Broncs had some holes that needed to be filled on defense with multiple starters graduating, but they retained an unrivaled offensive core, including the reigning NEC Offensive Player of the Year in senior forward Julia Divorra.
Head Coach Lori Hussong was confident that she could retool her roster and repeat as NEC champions, but after an unexpectedly turbulent regular season, Rider field hockey’s season was in jeopardy.
In a do-or-die thriller with Sacred Heart, the defending champs managed to pull themselves together at the last possible moment, claiming the fourth and final playoff spot in the NEC tournament.
With the playoff spot secured and a clean bill of health for the first time in many weeks, the full-strength Broncs finally put their troubled past behind them and got a fresh start in the playoffs, but defending their title was no easy feat.
In the first round of the tournament, the Broncs took on the top-seeded Fairfield Stags who had bested the Broncs in the regular season by a score of 2-0.
This time, with a blank injury report, Rider was confident it could get its revenge when it mattered most, but the Stags still proved to be too tall of a task, eliminating the Broncs with a 2-1 victory.
The effects of an injury-riddled season are what ultimately did the Broncs in.
“Had we not had those injuries during the season, I think we would’ve had more of a chance to blend together and play our best hockey. If you look at the season, we had a different lineup in a lot of games,” Hussong said.
The game began as well as Rider could have hoped, as a determined Divorra tallied her 15th goal of the season in the seventh minute of play.
“I didn’t want to make it the last game,” Divorra said.
This was Rider’s final goal of the season, and its early lead was not held on for long against the formidable Fairfield Stags.
In the opening minutes of the second quarter, Fairfield responded to tie the game at 1-1.
By halftime, Divorra seemed even more impressive and valuable, with the Broncs only getting two shots off in the first half.
However, Fairfield did not have as much trouble, as they were able to capitalize on a Rider mistake to take the lead at the end of the third quarter.
“With the second goal, they had a girl wide open at the top. … She made a great shot. … That’s just unfortunate,” said junior goalkeeper Kaitlyn Tomas.
The Stags protected their 2-1 lead by not allowing a single shot in the fourth quarter, displaying their superiority and subjecting the Broncs to a methodical 15-minute demise.
“We did the best we could. I think we had a good game plan. … We made a couple critical mistakes on the defensive end that lead to those two goals being scored. When you play a team like Fairfield, you make a mistake like that and they’re gonna make you pay for it. … They capitalized on their chances and we didn’t,” said Hussong.
It was a tragic, unfortunate ending to what could have been a special season for Rider field hockey, but the Broncs are ready to use these scars as motivation to improve.
“We know that feeling of winning, and now we know that feeling of being right there, that pain, that hole in your stomach. … We gotta keep working hard, and that starts now. We’re losing a lot of offense, but that’s also an opportunity for a lot of the girls,” said Tomas.
However, with almost the entire offense graduating in the spring, getting back to such a high level will not be easy. There is now a massive void on offense, and Hussong will certainly have her hands full during the offseason trying to replace it.
“It’s gonna be a rebuilding season next year. We do have a more experienced defense, but we are gonna be lacking on the offensive side. … We’re gonna go out and recruit some really good talent to come in and fill those shoes and go from there,” said Hussong.