By Jordan Hall
What a weekend it could be, or what a weekend it could have been. For the Rider sports scene, this weekend promises to be action-packed, excitement-filled and easily the busiest and biggest of the academic year thus far.
In Florida, the men’s soccer team takes on number-one seeded Fairfield today in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament. And on campus, both the men’s and women’s basketball programs kick off their seasons with exhibition matchups.
The spotlight, however, will shine on the history-seeking field hockey team. The NEC Championship tournament begins today and Rider enters as an overwhelming favorite. The top-seeded Broncs are heavily favored to bring home their second consecutive conference title, and they get to do so on their home turf after winning the regular season.
In other competition, volleyball has a match away from home, swimming and diving compete on the road, and remarkably, the weekend still could have been astronomically bigger.
Following an outstanding performance in non-conference action, the women’s soccer team performed at a sub-par level in league play.
The Broncs lived up to expectations by getting off to their best start in program history and a MAAC championship seemed in realistic reach, but Rider fell at the most critical juncture, ultimately missing the four-team championship.
Regardless, the weekend is huge, but it could be awfully small if victories aren’t provided. The women’s soccer team has already lost its opportunity, and now the weekend’s potential rides largely on the best athletic team wearing Rider uniforms: Field hockey.
“The three other teams in the championships are very tough opponents to match up against, and as we found out in past championships, when it gets down to this stage of the season, anything can happen,” Head Coach Lori Hussong said. “We always approach postseason play as a new season and are very aware of the fact that if we are not at our best, our season will be over.”
But when are they not? Saying Rider breezed through the regular season would be an understatement. The Broncs have broken down every NEC challenge thrown at them.
Rider (17-1, 7-0 NEC) outscored conference opponents 36-3 and has won 23 straight NEC regular season games, dating back to 2008. The Broncs demeanor is unflappable and their talent and skill are above and beyond the rest. Frankly, losing this weekend would be shocking, but it won’t be a thought heading in.
“We need to play our game of pressure and steal and continue to put the ball into the goal, early and as often as possible,” Hussong said. “Our defense will need to play tough as nails and keep the ball out of our defensive end.”
If the team sticks to the game plan, Rider should be hoisting the championship trophy and prolonging its memorable season into the NCAA play-in contest.
Compared to the dominant field hockey unit, the men’s soccer team finds itself in a completely different position. After hiring local legend Charlie Inverso as its new head coach, the Broncs became better, but not by substantial margins.
Rider won three games in its MAAC Schedule compared to one last season, but the most noticeable improvement was its 2-1 win over Canisius on Thursday in the preliminary round of the MAAC Championships.
Now the Broncs get their shot against Fairfield, the conference frontrunner. A victory and advancement to the semifinals may seem like a long shot, but Rider had the Stags beaten on Oct. 2 before letting a 2-1 lead slip late and eventually falling in overtime, 3-2.
Rider will be a tough out and lack of effort will be a non-issue.
On to the next one: Basketball. Both the men’s and women’s squads tip off their years with Division II opponents. Head coach Tommy Dempsey’s crew squares off with East Stroudsburg shortly after the NEC title game on Saturday while the women’s team hosts West Chester on Sunday afternoon.
The men should handle the Warriors with ease like they typically do in their D-II exhibition games. The women play a Golden Rams team that took them to overtime last season before surrendering to Rider.
Both programs have different outlooks on the year. The men’s team has hopes of a MAAC crown with another impressive roster.
“We have to continue to put a good team on the court every year,” Dempsey said. “If we’re going to be a top-tier program, eventually we’re going to have to break through and get to the NCAA Tournament, but we’re just trying to focus on getting ourselves prepared to have another good season.”
The women are excited to begin the year and wipe the slate clean from a frustrating ’10-’11 campaign in which they went 5-25 overall.
“If we just forgot last year, then we may make the same mistakes again,” junior Carleigh Brown said. “Instead, we are learning from it and taking steps to become a different team. We have all of the past season’s players back and we are ready to make a change.”
When it comes to this weekend, one thing is certain.
“This is the kind of weekend that can test an athletics department,” Associate Director of Athletics Karin Torchia said. “We are a staff that works extremely well together and can handle the challenges that a multi-event weekend can potentially throw our way.”
For Rider’s staff, they’re preparing to overcome all challenges. The athletes hope to do the same.