BLOOMSBURG, Pa. – For three consecutive years, Merrimack’s season ended with a loss in the semifinal round of the NCAA championships.
“We kind of called it ‘the curse’,” Merrimack senior mid Christine Zubukus said.
The Warriors were able to break that curse on Friday with a 1-0 victory against Stonehill to book a trip to the national championship game.
“It’s kind of nice that we finally broke ‘the curse’ for our senior year,” Zubuks said. “We’ve worked so hard for it and I think we deserve it.”
While the national semifinal has been Merrimack’s main hurdle, Stonehill’s own kryptonite was Merrimack itself. Both teams compete in the NE-10 conference and the Warriors were winners in their two previous meetings this season.
On Friday, Merrimack continued to dial that number, saying the difference in the game was simply, “scouting.”
“I know our assistant coaches and I were breaking down a lot of game footage on them, they were on us,” Merrimack coach Anne Rounce said. “I think it was very evenly matched. We play very similar styles.”
Those similar styles of play led to a scoreless first half, despite eight penalty corners in the first period for Merrimack.
“Going into it we were hoping to have less defensive corners,” Stonehill head coach Susan Ciufo said. “We were very proud of the defense all around, in terms of keeping the ball out and playing smart defense back there.”
The high number of penalty corners played into the game plan for Merrimack, but it took a goal off the break from Nicole Bradley more than 15 minutes into the second period to open the scoring.
“I think were more of a team unit and we like to pass the ball and I think that’s what made the difference today. They continued to go to one player and once we shut down that one player.”
The “one player” that Rounce is referring to is Stonehill senior Erika Kelly. Kelly is the active career scoring leader in Division II, as well as the nation’s leading scorer this season, whose career came to an unfortunate end with a loss in the semifinal.
Kelly has made such an impact on DII field hockey in her four-year career that Rounce admitted that one of the most important components of Friday’s victory was Sarah Sparks' ability to frustrate Kelly and keep her off the scoreboard.
“[Sparks] played outstanding defense on [Kelly]. I think if you can shut her down – I mean [Kelly] is one of the best players in the country for Division II – so that made a huge difference for us.”
In the final minutes of Friday’s contest, Kelly’s scoring ability became a threat for the first time in the game. She received a pass at the top of the circle with time running thin, moved the ball to her left and fired a shot off her backhand that got past everything but the crossbar.
“I can remember her freshman year, preseason and she kind of was low-key for the first couple of days and then all of a sudden we were scrimmaging,” assistant coach Andrea Moore said. “She just broke out those amazing skills in front of the goal, and I remember standing there with the then head coach and we we’re like ‘There she is.’”
Moore, in her fourth season as a coach with the Skyhawks, was able to get the full Kelly-effect, but first-year head coach Ciufo admitted that one of her draws to the Stonehill job was the nation’s leading scorer.
“It was exciting to be coming to Stonehill in June knowing I was going to be working with Erika,” Ciufo said. “I think she’s a true competitor on the field and really led the team well this year despite the coaching change.”
Merrimack will face the winner of East Stroudsburg and West Chester on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. for the national championship.