ANN ARBOR, Michigan – Individual awards and a giant, gleaming team trophy sat undisturbed on a table at the center of Ocker Field Sunday afternoon. The public address announcer twice tried to begin the post-game coronation of Syracuse as 2015 NCAA field hockey national champions, but the Orange players were still near the stands – each wearing white National Champions hats and T-shirts – hugging family and friends that had traveled to see the program win its first title.
After awards were finally distributed, and while the on-field celebration continued, senior goalkeeper Jess Jecko pointed to the team trophy sitting between her and coach Ange Bradley at a post-game press conference. That trophy, she said, was all the impetus Syracuse needed to muster the effort it needed to beat North Carolina, 4-2, in the title game.
“It’s the last game of the season and you have to put everything out there, or you can fall short,” Jecko said.
Zoe Wilson, a freshman midfielder from Atrim, Ireland, was the unlikely hero. She scored her first career goal on a corner with 11:21 left to play, breaking a 2-2 tie after North Carolina had rallied from a 2-0 halftime deficit. The Orange (21-1), who scored four goals on five shots, added an empty-net goal in the final minutes.
“I’m numb. I’ve been chasing this dream for 25 years,” said Bradley, who is in her 19th season as head coach at Syracuse. “I have no feeling because it’s so unreal right now. I’m just so proud of these women.”
That numbness may also have been caused by the bucket of ice water Syracuse players dumped over Bradley in the post-game celebration. Temperatures hovered around freezing in Ann Arbor, where 10 inches of snow fell on Saturday – the day between Friday’s semifinal round and Sunday’s title game.
University of Michigan facilities personnel arrived on scene at 4 a.m. Sunday to begin preparing Ocker Field for a 1 p.m. start. The turf had been protected by blowing heat beneath a tarp all day Saturday, but the stands and surrounding walkways required a significant amount of snow removal. Throughout the game, balls that left the field across either baseline disappeared into large snow banks.
“Our team was doing snow angels at practice,” said Bradley, adding that the weather had no impact on her team’s performance. “We train in this. It was not even a bad day.”
Syracuse certainly didn’t look bothered early, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first 18 minutes. First senior captain Emma Russell received a cross-circle pass from Liz Sack and knocked a shot past North Carolina goalkeeper Shannon Johnson. Less than 10 minutes later, senior Alma Fenne scored her team-best 19th goal of the season on a hard shot from the left arc.
With her goal, Russell tied the Syracuse program record for points in a career. She would break that mark in the final minutes of her final game by assisting on Emma Lamison’s empty-net goal.
“I think it just shows I’ve had good teammates around me,” Russell said. “Nothing can be achieved on your own. It’s a team sport, and over the past four years we’ve had some incredible players come and go. They’re the people that deserve this the most.”
North Carolina wasn’t ready to call it quits after trailing 2-0 at halftime. Malin Evert assisted on a Gab Majors goal two minutes into the second half and then scored a goal of her own with a one-touch redirection of a pass from Casey Di Nardo with 14:08 left to play that pulled the Tar Heels (21-3) even.
“At halftime, we just said you’ve got to go for it. It’s the national championship game, you’ve got to fight,” North Carolina coach Karen Shelton said. “Who cares if you lose now, but go down swinging. And they did that, and certainly got back into the game. I thought when we tied it that momentum was going our way, and then Syracuse slammed the door. Good for them.”
Bradley delivered her own motivational message during a timeout she called with 11:21 remaining. Wilson scored her game-winner 93 seconds later, but Bradley admitted it wasn’t because of anything strategic she drew up in the timeout.
“It was just a matter of looking in their eyes and reminding them that they’ve trained for this moment every day,” Bradley said. “(Motivation) is all it is at this time. There’s tactics, obviously, but great players make plays. It’s keeping the confidence high, keeping positive, and keeping a belief and staying in the moment.”
The irony of Wilson scoring the game-winning goal wasn’t lost on Bradley. For most of the season while the team practiced corners, Bradley would send her “B Group” of Wilson, Lamison and Erin Gillingham to the other end of the field, where they'd work in relative anonymity while Bradley focused most of her attention on the “A Group.”
“They would always come up and say, ‘We’re going to be the corner unit that wins the national championship,’” Bradley said. “I’m like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Then last week we gave Zoe some runs there, something we’ve adjusted into during the third phase of the season, and lo and behold she did it today. She rubbed it right in my face. It was fun.”
In her Irish brogue, Wilson said she was “absolutely delighted that I scored it. … I’ve never been so happy.”
“I knew that it was going to be a slip pass to me, so I was able to prepare myself for it,” Wilson said. “I tried to keep in the moment, just keep my head down. I felt really good. The ball coming across was just perfectly placed (by Lies Lagerweij) and I knew if I just swung on it, it would go in.”
North Carolina continued to pressure Syracuse even after Lamison’s empty-net goal, but Jecko came up with her fourth and fifth save of the day when she redirected a Di Nardo shot off a corner with 2:29 left to play, then stopped a Nina Notman penalty stroke awarded on the play.
North Carolina has reached the final four in each of the past seven seasons, but has come up empty in the season’s final weekend each year since 2009, losing in the championship game four times in those six years.
“You’ve got to put yourself in the position to win, and we’ve been doing that,” Shelton said. “We’re in the position to win it, and they will fall.”
The Orange avenged their only loss of the season in the title game, and the Tar Heels’ 2-1 overtime victory in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship played a role in the national title game.
“When we lost the ACC championship, I had our kids stay and watch the celebration. We saw that celebration again (Saturday) night on video, and we saw our remorse after the celebration,” Bradley said. “It’s the human spirit that makes these moments special. We really embody that at Syracuse.”
FIRST SYRACUSE WOMEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP
Russell said her team was quite proud to be the first women’s sports team at Syracuse to win a national championship.
“We would say every day that we want to be the first women’s team to win a national championship and the first field hockey team to win a national championship,” she said. “To be the first women’s team to bring it home is pretty special.”
A CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND
The Orange field hockey team was the second Syracuse squad to bring home national championship hardware. On Saturday, the men’s cross country team won a national title in Louisville, Kentucky.
Syracuse goalkeeper Jess Jecko and midfielders Alyssa Manley, Alma Fenne and Zoe Wilson were named to the all-tournament team while North Carolina is represented by midfielder Nina Notman, forward Malin Evert and back Julia Young. Midfielders Roison Upton and Karlie Heistand represent UConn, which lost to Syracuse in a semifinal. Duke, which lost to North Carolina, put backs Amanda Kim and Hannah Barreca on the team.