By Steven Eggert
It took Sandra Penas one week of collegiate field hockey experience before she created a name for herself. In that span, she tallied five goals and three assists, led the Broncs to three straight wins and won both the Northeast Conference Rookie and Player of the Week awards.
Three years, one month and 16 days later, the senior forward from Spain has become one of the greatest field hockey players to ever wear a Rider uniform. She’s a four-time NEC Rookie of the Week, a seven-time conference Player of the Week, the 2010 NEC Rookie of the Year, the 2011 NEC Offensive Player of the Year, a two-time Rider Female Athlete of the Month, the 2012-13 Rider Female Athlete of the Year and, most importantly, has led the Broncs to three NEC titles in three seasons.
In addition, she became the all-time points leader on Oct. 4 in a 2-1 overtime win against St. Joe’s where she tallied two assists. She has 162 career points with 63 goals and 36 assists.
“I feel honored to have this record,” Penas said. “It’s important to me, but it’s not my focus. Right now, all I want to do is win a conference championship again and get us further than we got last year. It’s awesome to have broken the record, don’t get me wrong, but it was not my main goal.”
For Head Coach Lori Hussong and Penas, it all began in Penas’ home country of Spain. Two years prior to her recruitment, Hussong had hit the jackpot with Virginia Egusquiza, ’11, a midfielder who held the Rider all-time points record prior to Penas.
“We got Virginia from Spain and the same recruiting service,” Hussong said. “We knew we had found a gem with her, so we decided to go for another Spanish girl. Sandra’s name was on the list of players and we looked at her video. We looked at her ability to score and we were like, ‘Oh my God, this kid is really good.’ We interviewed her, brought her for a visit and the rest is history.”
Egusquiza, in Penas’ words, was like an “older sister” because she would help her with whatever Penas needed. Whether it was selecting classes, field hockey, or anything else, she was there for Penas both on and off the field.
“I think it’s always helpful to have someone from your country when you are abroad, especially when you have culture or language problems,” Egusquiza said. “I tried to help her adjust to American life and field hockey. We’ve always been friends since she came to Rider, but now I consider her one of my very good friends.”
The presence of Penas and Egusquiza on the field, along with a great supporting cast, made Rider a force to be reckoned with from 2010-11. In the two seasons they played together, the Broncs went 35-6 and won two NEC championships.
“Having Sandra and Virginia here at the same time, we had an outstanding scorer and an outstanding midfielder,” Hussong said. “Everybody around them got better as the season went on because they were able to watch and learn. Sandra was able to transition and progress the way she wanted to because of the cast around her.”
Penas’ ability to score goals in part comes from her backhanded shot. Per NCAA rules, players can only use right-handed hockey sticks in collegiate field hockey. However, because she is left-handed, Penas can score in a way some players cannot.
“I usually like to go left,” Penas said. “That’s the shot I have open, a reverse shot. Now teams are expecting me to do that and they know what I do, so I need to alternate between a regular shot and left-handed shot. I think I have a better left-handed shot than regular shot.”
Penas has been a goal scorer since she’s played for Rider, tallying 63 goals in less than four seasons. This season, Penas has already recorded a career high in assists with 11, and is tied for second in that category in the nation.
“Her passing is just as good as her shooting,” Hussong said. “Sandra has a cast around her that for the first time, she has somebody receiving her passes. A lot of the freshmen have been beneficiaries of great passing and chances to score, so it’s nice to see Sandra get the credit on the other side.”
Egusquiza, now an assistant on the Rider coaching staff, has seen Penas grow both on and off the field and admires the way she has adjusted since she arrived from Spain.
“She has matured incredibly,” Egusquiza said. “Sandra is our top scorer, but she matured not just because of time, but because living in a different culture requires you to mature. Now she is an adult.”
The rest of the year is about winning the MAAC championship and playing in the NCAA tournament, one thing neither she, nor any Rider team, has ever accomplished.
“I would be more than happy to say I’ve been in the NCAA tournament,” Penas said. “That would be our dream. We’ve lost three years in a row, and we would get the full experience. No other Rider team had ever accomplished that, so that would be also great.”