By Logan VanDine
To say this season has been magical for the Rider field hockey team would be a huge understatement.
After entering with expectations of rebuilding, the Broncs proved all doubters wrong and cruised through the Northeast Conference (NEC) Tournament, defeating Saint Francis and Fairfield to win the conference championship and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Senior goalie Kaitlyn Tomas was awarded NEC Tournament MVP, making eight saves and allowing just one goal on the NEC’s highest stage.
‘We played very smart today’
The Broncs started the 2022 NEC Tournament in a big way, shutting out the Saint Francis Red Flash, 2-0, to get their 10th win in a row and advance to the NEC Championship on Nov. 4.
After a scoreless opening quarter, the Broncs, who’ve been reliant on strong freshman play all season, counted on one of their young stars again. Freshman forward Valeria Perales, who was already having an excellent freshman season, got the scoring started for Rider as she shot and scored the first goal of the game making the score 1-0 heading into halftime.
“For me, I feel that I played really well, I was nervous at the beginning but as the time passed by I felt more relaxed and that gave me the possibility to play as best I knew,” Perales said.
Early in the third, the Broncs created some breathing room making the score now 2-0 courtesy when freshman forward Semra Said scored her ninth goal of the season.
“Today’s game was a tough one. Anytime a team is involved in tournament play, it’s the team that capitalizes on their chances and plays with the most emotion and heart that has the best chance to move on. Today our team played tough as nails and got the job done,” Head Coach Lori Hussong said.
Hussong also explained how the Broncs approached Saint Francis differently than before after losing to the Red Flash 3-2 on Sept. 30.
“We were a totally different team than the first time we played Saint Francis, as our freshmen are more experienced and are more acclimated to our style of play,” she said.
‘There is no better feeling’
In overtime, the Broncs clinched their eighth NEC Championship as they took down the Fairfield Stags in Staten Island, 2-1 on Nov. 6 to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
It seemed like it was going to be a defensive battle from the get-go. After the Broncs and Stags scored back-to-back goals in the first quarter, the game remained deadlocked at one for three straight quarters.
In overtime, the Broncs played better than they had all season, scoring early in the period and again it was their young freshman stars who contributed.
Perales, coming off her strong performance over Saint Francis was able to knock in the Broncs’ second and winning goal of the game, clinching the NEC Championship for Rider.
“I think our team played with a lot of heart. That’s been the motto of our season this year. I think we’ve worked tremendously hard to get to where we are today. I’m just so proud of every single one of them on the team. It’s a great feeling for them,” Hussong said. “We couldn’t be happier and prouder of our team’s effort today. Everyone gave their best and came up big when we needed them to. Our defense and second effort was key to our win. Kaitlyn [Tomas] is playing the best hockey of her career and the entire defense is playing smart and tough. We are so happy that our team gets to experience winning an NEC Championship. There is no better feeling than having all of your hard work be rewarded in the form of a championship.”
Hussong also spoke about all the emotions she and her team and staff went through the moment she saw Perales’ goal reach the net.
“When Val [Valeria Perales] scored to win the game our entire staff had tears of happiness,” said Hussong. “It’s so rewarding as coaches to watch your team play with pride and determination and to see our players get what they deserve. All year long every single player on the team has sacrificed and supported each other through the highs and lows and given their all to our team. They bought into our ‘team first’ philosophy, believed in each other and followed the game plan.”
Perales also described how she was able to execute the game-winning shot along with her emotions she had winning the game for her team.
“We just waited until the moment. We just stayed to get this opportunity to, at the end, make the goal. I was just holding composed and then the ball came to me and I just shot it in,” Perales said.
Next up for the Broncs is the NCAA Tournament on Nov. 9 when they face-off against Miami (Ohio) and Hussong is feeling confident in her teams’ chances.
“It’s NCAA Tournament time and anything is possible,” Hussong said.