Volleyball: A new No. 1 in the land

This past Friday evening, the No. 1 nationally ranked Concordia-St. Paul Golden Bears hosted the No. 2 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. Both teams sat at a perfect 13-0 on the season. However, by night’s end, only the Bulldogs would leave still undefeated.

The two teams are no strangers. They are rivals who are in arguably the most competitive conference in DII women’s volleyball. Last season, the Bulldogs saw their season end at the hands of the Golden Bears, dropping the match three sets to two in the NSIC tournament.

RELATED: Minnesota Duluth jumps to No. 1 in AVCA poll

This game would prove to be an emotional roller coaster as well. Minnesota Duluth took the first two sets — 25-23 and 25-22, respectively — but the Golden Bears wouldn’t go down without a fight. They fired back and captured the next two sets in dominating fashion, winning 25-11 and 25-15, before the Bulldogs sealed the deal with a thrilling 15-12 win in the finale.

“After we won, we had that feeling of ‘finally!’” senior outside hitter for the Bulldogs Taylor Wissbroecker — who tallied seven kills and an ace — said. “We proved to ourselves what we're made of and that we will battle through each match. This year’s team is about heart and leaving it out on the floor. Concordia is a frequent opponent who always brings great competition that we feel we are on equal caliber with.”

This match had a little extra emotion behind it, too. Last season, not only did the Golden Bears end the Bulldogs season, they ended head coach Jim Boos’s streak of 13 straight NCAA postseasons. It certainly left a mark with this Bulldogs squad.

“We definitely came into this season with a chip on our shoulder for being left out of the tournament,” Wissbroecker said. “That motivates us every day in practice and in every match up no matter who is on the other side of the net.”

The Bulldogs loss last year against the Golden Bears ended coach Jim Boos's streak of 13 straight NCAA postseasons.
Minnesota Duluth Athletics
The Bulldogs loss last year against the Golden Bears ended coach Jim Boos's streak of 13 straight NCAA postseasons.
For Wissbroecker and her fellow seniors, it was an offseason of firsts. Sitting and watching the NCAA postseason was not something in which they were very comfortable. It was also an offseason of what ifs.

“It was crazy to think we held the No. 1 spot for four weeks and were ranked in the coaches poll as fifth right before the selection show to find out we weren't good enough to even try for the national title,” Wissbroecker said. “All we could think was 'what if?' What if we had beat Concordia in the conference tourney, what if we hadn't lost to Mankato midseason? All these thoughts roll through, and as a senior, I am determined to not let my career end sitting in a chair again.”

UMD moved to 15-0 with another 3-2 victory on Sunday, this time over Minnesota State-Mankato. They are tied atop the NSIC with Augustana at 7-0. With U-Mary and Minot State, the now No. 1 Bulldogs know that there is no time to rest, as the schedule only gets tougher from here on out. 

“We have strong chemistry as a team but continue to improve in skill which is exciting,” Wissbroecker said. “We know the expectations are high and have been in this No. 1 spot before, which does not mean anything. We aren't complacent and continue to focus on the UMD way and take the season one game at a time. Our goals for the season, like any other year, is to make it the best one yet."

RELATED: Concordia-St. Paul looking for return to national championship glory

As always, UMD has one ultimate goal. It is a goal commonly shared by any top program, but behind a strong start, their recent big win, a No. 1 ranking and the remembrance of last season's end, these Bulldogs are focused, and it is showing. For Wissbroecker and her fellow seniors to have a chance to raise the trophy would be a dream come true.

“I can't even describe what it would mean to be part of the team that brought home the first national championship, but I know it would be extraordinary," Wissbroecker said. "Our team has always had the potential to take it all, and we hope to make that happen this year.”

Field Hockey: No. 1 LIU Post heads to Adelphi in a nationally ranked match amongst rivals

The LIU Post Pioneers field hockey team has some pretty significant history behind them. At the completion of the 2014 season, head coach Raenee Savin became just the sixth coach in DII history to lead her program to back-to-back national championship games. While they would drop both to PSAC powerhouses, Shippensburg and Millersville, they certainly put themselves on the map as a dominant force in DII field hockey.

That’s why last season’s 10-8 record stung a bit.

“This year’s seniors were freshmen in 2013, so they tasted that success right away when they came in and then again their sophomore year,” Savin said. “Not making the playoffs in 2015, it kind of felt like a terrible season for us, even though we finished over .500. Those freshmen four years ago, they set the standard high back in 2013, so they look to raise the bar every time they are on the field. They want to be celebrating holding that championship trophy at the end of this year.”

For the first time in LIU Post field hockey history, the Pioneers claimed the No. 1 spot in the NFHCA poll.
LIU Post Athletics
For the first time in LIU Post field hockey history, the Pioneers claimed the No. 1 spot in the NFHCA poll.
Post field hockey is much more than a sport for Savin. For more than half of her life, she has been a part of the program, first as a player and now a coach. The bond she shares with these seniors, who have seen incredible highs as well as the lows, is tight knit. Should they finally win that elusive title, it will mean a lot, particularly with the group she has.

“It would be absolutely amazing for not only myself, but them as well,” Savin said. “I went to school there, I met my husband there, now my daughter runs around like she owns the place. It’s truly a family affair. I couldn’t do my job well if I didn’t love it so much. I love these girls, and we truly are a family.”

Steph Mocerino is one of those seniors, helping lead a balanced attack with a team best four assists to go along with four goals. Melissa Quintanilla is one of those seniors, and despite scoring only two goals thus far, she has made them count, scoring one as a game-winner. Senior captain Ericka Parks has been the starting goal keeper since her freshman year and is currently sitting at 8-0 with three shutouts.

“Ericka is playing some of the best hockey of her career right now,” Savin said. “She has been solid for us over the last four years. She has just shown so much maturity. She is confident, stays composed, hard working. I watched her working out, putting in the time just to make herself faster and stronger. All that hard work this summer is definitely paying off. I have people ask me all the time, ‘Why isn’t this girl playing Division I field hockey?’ I’m glad she’s not, because we got her.”

The Pioneers have had a rigorous schedule thus far this season, having already knocked off several nationally ranked teams, including East Stroudsburg earlier in the season. That 10-8 2015 season may have left Post under the radar to start 2016, but everyone is watching them now.

The Pioneers are currently 8-0 on the season.
LIU Post Athletics
The Pioneers are currently 8-0 on the season.
“We go into every single game like it’s a championship game,” Savin said. “We started this season not being ranked at all, and after a couple of big wins, we popped in at seven. After a few more big wins against the top teams, including the defending national champions, we moved to second. The wins kept coming, and we find ourselves on top of the coaches poll, and we went from being on no one’s radar to everyone’s target. Every game is a big game for us.”

Wednesday night is the next big test of many for the Pioneers. They head 15 minutes down the road to square off against Adelphi. But, the Panthers aren’t just a nationally ranked team, they are the Pioneers biggest NE-10 rivals simply due to their proximity. It undoubtedly makes this the DII Field Hockey Game of the Week.

“We know that we are not Michigan and Ohio State, but any time that we play Adelphi, no matter the ranking or point of the season, it’s always a big game,” Savin said. “We joke around and say we can set up a game of chess and fill a stadium based on the fact that it’s Post versus Adelphi. Both teams want to win, and at the end of the day, it’s going to be the team that goes out there and works for it that walks away with the bragging rights.”

Soccer: Stonehill Skyhawks remain in the top five this week

If you have watched the NSCAA Coaches Poll the last half decade, you may not be accustomed to seeing the Stonehill Skyhawks amongst the top 25. That’s why it was a bit surprising when they jumped from No. 18 to No. 5 last week. Still, undefeated, the Skyhawks remained in the top five this week, jumping up one spot to No. 4.

Head coach Alex Wilson took over in 2013, knowing that it would take time to develop Stonehill into a powerhouse. She was just 12-26-7 over her first three seasons, coming off a 4-10-4 2015. The numbers don’t show the whole story, however. Wilson saw players buying into her system and improving, letting their coach know that this team was close.

“There’s a lot of good and progressive soccer behind those numbers,” Wilson said. “Each season we’ve played better technically and tactically, and it’s a great feeling to experience this hot start. The key is to remain focused on what we do daily and how we execute each session and game."

"I knew it would take time when I took over in 2013," Wilson continued. "These seniors were my freshmen at that point, and they bought in straight away to the changes both culturally and on the pitch. I had high expectations coming into 2016, with 22 returners and a strong cast of 10 seniors. I knew the individual talent was there, but what the team has shown thus far is that the chemistry and ability to play together is also present.”

Stonehill soccer has tallied seven shutouts this season.
Stonehill Athletics
Stonehill soccer has tallied seven shutouts this season.
Lauren Kapatoes is amongst that group of seniors. She has been a leader since she first donned the Skyhawks uniform, taking home NE-10 All-Rookie Team honors in 2013. This season, she leads the team with 11 points, including two game-winning goals. She is at the forefront of this turnaround.

“Obviously, being nationally recognized for the first time in my four years at Stonehill is pretty awesome,” Kapatoes said. “It’s a feeling that’s indescribable, especially because most people would have never expected us to come out on top. As a senior captain, I am so proud of our team and what we have accomplished.  It’s an honor to be nationally ranked and compared among the best teams in the nation, and I most certainly think it is something we deserve. It is definitely a confidence booster, but we try not to let it get to us.  We know what it is like to be at the bottom and not get the results you’ve worked hard for.”

The Skyhawks made their mark right out of the gate this season, defeating first Assumption and Saint Anselm to take home their first ever Catholic Cup Title. The MVP of the tournament? Lauren Kapatoes.

“I think coming into the season, as any season, there are always nerves," Kapatoes explained. "But for us, the Catholic Cup was something we were excited for.  A goal of ours has always been to win, so beating Assumption and Saint Anselm, who are both talented teams, was a great feeling.  Starting the season off on two wins against NE-10 opponents really boosted our confidence and brought the team together.  We had a fire in us that I haven’t seen in years past.  Last year, we struggled finishing the ball, so to score four goals in the opening round of play and only allow one proved that we were capable of competing with the best.”

Another senior who has been monumental in her strong start is Kapatoes's co-captain, goalie Jamie Block. The last name is quite fitting, as Block has done just that all season, sitting at 10-0-1 behind seven shutouts and a 0.53 goals against average. 

“The senior leadership is tremendous,” Wilson said. “I really can’t say enough about this group — they mean a lot to the team and program on and off the field. We’ve been through some highs and lows, and I think those experiences have made the seniors even more determined to reach new heights. Jamie has been key to our defensive success throughout her career, and now as a senior, I think she is playing some of her best soccer and expanding her leadership skills as a second-year captain along with Claire O’Brien. However, the leadership of all the seniors is present every day, and I’m beyond proud of them. But I also make it clear, we have much work to do, and I know they understand we aren’t done yet.”

The Skyhawks have gone from the hunters to the hunted. This week seemingly only gets tougher as they have a rematch with Saint Anselm on Friday and then a matchup with AIC on Monday. The Yellow Jackets currently sit in second place in the NE-10, right behind the red-hot Skyhawks. While the season has been nice so far, Wilson knows it won’t get any easier.

“We’ve done some nice things through the first half of the season — many things to be proud of, to celebrate and to motivate us for more,” Wilson said. “I’ve felt something about this group of returners since the spring, and I knew adding a talented freshmen class for Fall 2016 was only going to deepen our abilities. The whole group, all 30 players, are invested in our journey and willing to do whatever it takes. They play for each other and have a strong sense of team — the fight and determination comes from the strength of the group and it adds an element to our style of play.”

RELATED: Surprising teams climb in the rankings early on

This is a new era of Skyhawks soccer, one that is not only exciting, but producing wins. There is a different feeling on the field, one of confidence and that this team truly belongs. They shared a common goal this offseason, and thus far, they are meeting their lofty expectations.

“We had many goals at the beginning of the season, but I think something as a team that was important to us was to prove people wrong,” Kapatoes said. “Being ranked 12th in the [NE-10] preseason polls obviously was not where we would have liked to be, but it gave us motivation.  It made us realize that we have work to do, and it’s our year to show how great Stonehill women’s soccer can be.”