By David Nugent
The Broncs are set to defend their NEC championship today at home. Rider (17-1, 7-0 NEC) will be hosting the NEC tournament at the Ben Cohen Field this weekend as it takes on St. Francis (Pa.) (5-14, 3-4 NEC) today at 1:30 p.m.. The championship game will be Saturday at noon.
The second and third seeds Monmouth (14-5, 6-1 NEC) and Quinnipiac (11-7, 5-2 NEC) will play at 11 a.m.
Rider is currently ranked 20th in the nation. If the Broncs win the NEC tournament, they will go on to face the winner of the Ivy League tournament in the NCAA play-in game.
The Broncs had an outstanding season, compiling 17 wins and seven consecutive conference victories. Rider’s only loss came against Hofstra, 5-2, on Sept. 11. The Broncs posted 10 shutouts this season, including the season finale against first-round opponent St. Francis, 2-0, on Sunday.
The Broncs average nearly five goals per game. They are led by outstanding goaltender senior Rebecca Lotito, who posted a 0.75 goals against average this season.
Rider has four players with 29 points or more. Senior forward Virginia Egusquiza contributed 49 points (16 goals, 17 assists). Sophomore forward Sandra Penas tallied a team-leading 20 goals, adding eight assists resulting in 48 points. Junior forward Marlaine Schneider added 47 points (15 goals, 17 assists) and senior forward Megan Pisani finished the regular season with 29 points (13 goals, 3 assists).
Head coach Lori Hussong is not worried about the fact that the Broncs just had a tough game against the Red Flash.
“We prepare for our semi-final game against St. Francis like any other game,” Hussong said. “[Our] focus will be on best effort and intensity. Postseason play is the second season and we are very much aware of the fact that it’s crunch time and that we have to be at the top of our game to succeed.”
St. Francis edged Sacred Heart for the final playoff spot by virtue of a 4-0 victory over them on Oct. 7. St. Francis’ offense is led by freshman forward Autumn Pellman, who finished the season with 25 points (12 goals and one assist). Kellie Mason, a junior, has contributed 15 points and freshman Carissa Makea recorded 13.
A victory today will assure the Broncs a championship match against either Quinnipiac or Monmouth, which are both teams that the Broncs have defeated this season. Rider beat Quinnipiac 5-2 on Oct. 16 and Monmouth 3-2 on Oct. 20.
Hussong sees the strategies for victory as the same no matter who the opponent may be.
“The key to our success is to have our team play with wild ambition and energy all over the field,” Hussong said. “We need to work together to pressure and steal and transition as fast as we can down the field.”
Monmouth is led by junior forward Michelle Pieczynski, who has accumulated 19 goals and six assists for a total of 44 points. Current NEC player of the week, sophomore forward Patricia O’Dwyre, has amassed 36 points (14 goals and eight assists) and ranks second on the team in scoring.
Quinnipiac clinched its playoff spot with a 5-2 victory over Sacred Heart. The Bobcats have won their last three conference games on the road to gain their playoff berth. Quinnipiac has a high-powered offense. The Bobcats had five players accumulate 20 or more points. Hussong knows the Broncs have a tough challenge ahead of them to repeat as NEC champions.
“We know we have our work cut out and everyone is trying to beat us,” Hussong said. “Hopefully we will be at our best and play fearless and be successful defending our title.”