By Jake Tiger
After falling to the Fairfield Stags in the Northeast Conference Tournament (NEC) and failing to defend their title, a disappointed Rider field hockey squad braced for a crucial and challenging offseason of uncertainty and difficult decisions.
With forwards Julia Divorra and Carly Brosious both graduating, the bulk of Rider’s prolific offense would be vacated, as the two seniors accounted for 27 of Rider’s 40 goals in 2021.
“It’s going to be a rebuilding season next year. We do have a more experienced defense, but we are going to be lacking on the offensive side,” said Head Coach Lori Hussong after the loss in November.
Despite this heavy offensive turnover, the Broncs were remarkably competitive with their reconstructed roster of fresh and former faces, scoring nine goals and achieving a 2-1 record through their first three games of the season.
The Rider brass managed to bring in a substantial freshman class in the offseason, totaling nine players in all. As a result, the starting lineup consists of six underclassmen and just five upperclassmen.
“We focused our recruiting on bringing top notched goal scorers to replace what we had lost through graduation, as well as talented versatile players who could play midfield as well as help out on the defensive end, and we feel we have accomplished that with this year’s freshman class,” said Hussong.
The meshing of experience levels went surprisingly well to begin the season, as the Broncs showed no signs of inexperience. In their first two games, they consistently found the back of the cage while holding firm defensively, earning a couple of convincing victories.
The first of Rider’s wins came on Aug. 26 when it opened the season with a 4-1 triumph over Bellarmine University, before following it up with 5-1 win in its game against Colgate University.
Particularly in its matchup with Colgate on Aug. 28, Rider played with a considerable amount of poise and connectivity. Some offensive possessions seemed almost telepathically fluid, with defensive stops quickly transitioning into fastbreak flourishes.
Multiple players have stepped up to fill in the gaps left by Divorra and Brosious, but Rider’s new offensive attack has no doubt been spearheaded by freshman forward Valeria Perales. Similar to Divorra before her, Perales was recruited from Spain and has been lethal around the goal. Of the nine goals Rider scored, the freshman punched in five of them.
“We knew Valeria would be an impact player as a freshman,” said Hussong. “She is one of the hardest working players on the team and has a nose for scoring. Adding her into the mix with Sierra [Giuliano] and Lyric [Scott] makes for a very fast, exciting and dynamic front line.”
While Perales has dealt out the majority of Rider’s goals, senior midfielder Sierra Giuliano has been the perfect complement, posting three assists and two goals of her own over the first two games. Primarily a defensive player in 2021, Giuliano has taken on a more significant role, providing excellent passing, scoring and defense while also adding much-needed veteran leadership and experience.
After blowing by their first two opponents, the Broncs hit a sudden speed bump on Sept. 2 against Appalachian State, suffering a brutal 1-0 loss in double overtime.
The Broncs and Mountaineers took 28 combined shots but were locked in a scoreless stalemate, as neither defense would break. In the end, Appalachian State came out on top after a deflected ball ended up in Rider’s goal.
“I was really happy with our performance,” said Hussong. “We matched their intensity and they’re a really good team. It came down to who could get a ball around the goalie instead of through them.”
Rider had multiple chances to take the lead, totaling 17 shots and nine shots on goal, but they consistently failed to seize those opportunities, whether it be from self-inflicted mistakes or rigid defense by the Mountaineers.
“Their goalie played an amazing game, and the bottom line in a game like field hockey is that you need to score to win, and we fell short,” said Hussong. “Had we done a better job on our attacking corners and taking advantage of our opportunities, we may have gotten a better result.”
Perales alone took nine shots, seven of them being on goal, but nothing would go.
“We hustled hard, we out-played them and it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t capitalize,” said senior goalkeeper Kaitlyn Tomas. “It is what it is, and that was the final score.”
The Broncs hope to bounce back from their first loss of the season at Towson University on Sept. 9 at 4 p.m. The game will be streamed on FloSports.