The Shippensburg Raiders field hockey team saw their 2015 come to an end earlier than expected being ousted in the PSAC quarterfinals by rival Bloomsburg. Head coach Bertie Landes and her roster, one heavy with returning starters, expected to face many of the normal challenges a championship-less offseason brings.
The adversity they faced, however, was far greater than they had ever imagined.
Amanda Strous was a former Shippensburg Raider field hockey standout for Landes, first as a player and then later as an assistant coach. She was the captain during a senior season that saw Shippensburg finish as the national runner-up in 2010. Three seasons later, Strous, now in an assistant-coaching role, was able to help finish what she started as a student-athlete. She was an instrumental factor in helping Landes and Shippensburg capture their elusive national championship as the field hockey team defeated LIU Post 2-1 in overtime, bringing Shippensburg their school’s first national title.
This past summer, Strous’ life was unfairly taken from her at the young age of 27, a month before she was to be wed. It left the Shippensburg family, from the administration and the athletic department to the entire community, both in shock and mourning.
“It was hard in the summer,” Landes said. “It was just a shock. I had text her that morning, I had just gotten back from Australia with a team I had taken over there and was waiting to hear back from her. To hear the next day that she had died, it was just brutal.”
Strous played four years with Landes, and after a year away coaching with Hamilton in New York, she returned to her roots and became Landes’ top assistant.
“The kids were coached by her for three years,” Landes said. “They loved her. She was a great kid. She just had a passion for the game and life that was very unusual in a person her age.”
Strous left the coaching staff in 2015 to pursue her career as a school counselor closer to her fiancé in North Carolina. As an assistant with the 2013 national champions, she had spent two years with the current seniors on the Raiders.
“They’re still hurting,” Landes said of the five returning seniors, the last remaining of the national champion squad. “Everyday you’re still approached with it and see it. But I think they are handling it in a great way because they are using it to motivate themselves to shine their light and leave their own legacy like Strous left with us. And that’s really neat when you see the passion that she had, and the love and acceptance that they have for each other. They are committed to keeping this team together and not let anything interfere, and that was Strous. She showed her love in so many ways, and I think our seniors are doing that as much as possible. That’s kind of neat as a coach to watch.”
After a June spent mourning the loss of their beloved assistant, the Raiders returned to field. There was still field hockey to be played this season.
And play they have.
The Raiders are off to a hot start. They are currently undefeated, sitting at 5-0 and have jumped four spots all the way up to No. 2 in the country in the Sept. 13 NFHCA Coaches' Poll. They started out with a 1-0 victory over Messiah, behind an exciting overtime winning goal from senior Katelyn Grazan, and have been rolling ever since, outscoring their opponents 16-1 over five games.
Grazan, a senior, has been on fire to start the season. She leads the team in goals with five, picking up a second game-winning overtime goal this past Wednesday to add to her list of accolades. Adding on an assist, she also leads the team in points with 11.
“She has come so far, she’s just doing a great job for us,” Landes said of her senior forward. “She had her struggles. We all struggled last year with this team, just scoring and staying together. These seniors have brought it all together, and KG is playing a very mature game and doing what we need her to do and scoring.”
“She’s just a phenomenal athlete,” Landes said of Mooney. “She’s hard working and just starting to get back into it. You could imagine after losing a year, it takes a while to get back into it, with the timing and all. She’s still a process in work but Wednesday night’s game was really a good game for her.”
Miranda Wallace, Cassie Rawa, Taylor Fisher, Suzanne Muller and Grazan are poised to finish their careers the way they started, and that’s finding a way back to the NCAA tournament and a chance to play for the championship. They’ve been there, and that experience is invaluable to this program.
“It’s great, because they’ve been through it,” Landes said. “We haven’t been to the National Championship in a year, so all the freshmen and sophomores only know what we talk about. As you know, you don’t talk about the National Championship when you play, you talk about the next game. These seniors are so good at keeping the team focused on the little things that make us who we are.”
They are going to have to be focused this Saturday. The Raiders face their first big test of the season, as the reigning DII national champion East Stroudsburg comes to Robb Sports Complex. These Raiders are well aware of what is at stake, riding a six-game winning streak against their conference rivals, as it is an early season matchup of the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country and, quite possibly, a preview of the PSAC title game.
“Oh yea, there’s no question,” Landes said of how excited her team is for Saturday. “Now there’s even a bit more because last year, we were the only team to beat them. So they’ll be coming with a little bit more because they want to prove that maybe that shouldn’t have happened. And of course they’re No. 1, and we're No. 2. It’s going to be intense.”
The rivalry extends beyond the players, as Landes and ESU head coach Sandy Miller are two of the biggest names in the coaching annals of PSAC and DII field hockey lore. Landes -- the six-time PSAC Coach of the Year -- is DII's all-time leader in winning percentage, while Miller -- a four-time DII Coach of the Year, herself -- ranks in the Top 5 in both wins and winning percentage. Two storied coaching careers at two storied programs. They have gone head-to-head many a time, and they have certainly made it entertaining for those watching over the years.
“Oh my gosh yes,” Landes said of her and Miller’s relationship and rivalry over the years. “Sandy has been here longer than I have. It’s so competitive every game. It gets crazy.”
To prepare for a match of Saturday’s proportions, it takes more than devising up the right plays or relying on a scoring barrage from the hot hand. It takes a certain edge to not only play in these games but come out victorious.
“I think just mentally, to get tough,” Landes said of preparing for ESU. “It’s on our home field which is obviously a huge advantage for us. We have to be ready to play every second of both halves. Fine tune the passing game, and those kind of little things.”
Shippensburg is not only on a mission to preserve the legacy of Strous, but they want to return to the NCAA tournament. Fifteen straight seasons have found the Raiders in the PSAC tournament, but last year’s season finale — a 3-2 overtime loss to 13-time national champion Bloomsburg — still stings arguably the most. With 10 returning juniors to go with the five seniors, it still lingers in the locker room.
“They talk about that,” Landes said of her players’ drive to erase last year’s ending. “They were not satisfied with not being in the PSAC Championship game for the first time, and then the NCAAs. We had six overtime games last year and lost four of them, that was significant. I think we’re maturing. My juniors really need to step up, that’s the key to the season.”
Live. Laugh. Love. Leave a legacy. That’s the motto for which the 2016 Shippensburg Raiders play. The number 22 is now added to the 2013 National Championship banner to remind them first and foremost that field hockey is just a game. And, what is most important is the relationships you build now and the impression you leave for the future young women to come through the program.
“Her laughter,” Landes says of perhaps Strous’ greatest gift to her team and the Shippensburg family. “She had so much fun with game and with her life, and I think the kids are trying to do that. Not let the little things, the bumps in the road really get to you. Life is so much bigger than that, so smile and move on.”