Climbing to the Top

Rutger Wiese and Adel Heder, office neighbors on the bottom floor of Memorial Field House, steered dark horses to the top in the fall of 2004. Their teams fooled the experts and foiled a succession of favored foes to finish the season in the NCAA tournament.

Suzanne Cornelissen

Suzanne Cornelissen

The odds were longer than Pinocchio’s nose that either would perform on the national stage in November. Wiese lost fifteen players from his 11-10 field hockey squad of a year before, while Heder’s youthful soccer team was regarded as no better than third best in its division. Yet both whipped like a whirlwind through the autumn months, piling up victories like so many fallen leaves—in record numbers, in fact—and qualifying for the NCAAs. Such unprecedented success, achieved against a backdrop of modest expectations, caught even their coaches by surprise.

“Especially if you realize where we’re coming from,” said Wiese, who directed his Indians to their first-ever NCAA tourney victory and a berth in the Division II Final Four. “Two years ago this team had a conference record of 2-6. Last year when I arrived here [after the season began], we were 0-4. A year later we’re in the national semifinals.”

Heder’s squad, dismissed as a sacrificial lamb in the PSAC tournament, sprang upsets against two ranked opponents and then dispatched Kutztown 3-2 to claim the conference crown and secure the first NCAA tourney berth in the program’s history.

“Nobody expected us to be here,” said Heder as he watched his giddy players hoist the PSAC title trophy. “Our goal at the beginning of the season was just making the conference playoffs. But we passed our goal.”

Overachieving was only one of many striking similarities the teams shared. For example:

  • Heder’s team shattered the school record of fourteen victories en route to a 19-4 record; Wiese’s squad shattered the school record of fourteen victories and finished 18-5.
  • The soccer team set a school mark with seven consecutive victories; the field hockey squad won eight straight in one stretch, one shy of the program’s standard.
  • Soccer forward Erin Falce scored a school-record twenty-nine goals, including a school-record four in a 9-1 rout of Penn State-Altoona; field hockey forward Suzanne Cornelissen scored a school-record thirty goals, including a school-record four in a 10-0 rout of Slippery Rock.
Erin Falce

Erin Falce

Cornelissen, a junior who set a single-season Division II record with seventy-four points, was one of four Dutch players recruited in the off-season by Wiese, a native of the Netherlands. She and freshman midfielder Elsbeth Beijnes earned first-team All-PSAC honors (junior forward Kandice Pyles and freshman defender Liz Martini were second-team picks), with Beijnes winning the Rookie of the Year award. The team’s top four goal scorers—Cornelissen, Beijnes (10), freshman midfielder Fleur Tjong (10), and freshman forward Stefanie van Leuven (7)—all hailed from the Netherlands.

“We lost fifteen players after the 2003 season, and I wasn’t at that moment well connected in Pennsylvania and America with high school coaches,” Wiese said. “I had no idea where to go for players. Now what’s easier than going back to your home country?”

Cornelissen immediately established herself as the preeminent offensive force in the nation. She led Division II in goals, goals per game (1.30), points, and points per game (3.22), and ranked fourth in assists (14) and fifth in assists per game (0.61).

“You won’t hear me complain about having her on the team,” Wiese said. “She’s a fantastic player. I don’t think they’ve ever seen anything like her in this conference.”

Cornelissen netted the lone goal in a 1-0 September victory over top-ranked Bloomsburg that snapped the Huskies’ thirty-two-match home winning streak and stamped IUP as a legitimate contender for the national title.

“That was huge, that win, on their field,” Wiese said. “Although the stats don’t prove it, I think we dominated that game. They didn’t get a shot on our goal for fifty-five minutes.”

Alas, Bloomsburg later exacted revenge, dealing the Indians three of their five defeats. The Huskies handed IUP a 1-0 loss in the PSAC title game, then ended their season with a 3-1 setback in the NCAA semifinals. The Indians had advanced to the Final Four with a 2-0 quarterfinal win over Shippensburg, the program’s inaugural NCAA victory.

The soccer team hoped to post its first NCAA win in an opening-round match against Adelphi (N.Y.), but a 2-0 defeat halted the Indians’ dizzying postseason run. Their national tournament debut was made possible by an improbable three-for-three performance in the PSAC playoffs, including back-to-back 1-0 upsets of Western Division co-leaders Lock Haven and Slippery Rock.

“Lock Haven and Slippery Rock had good teams, and they were ranked throughout the season. We weren’t,” said Heder, who was named the PSAC West Coach of the Year for the second time in four years. “I think that was the key. Our girls wanted to prove we should be ranked, that we can beat those teams. I think that’s what drove them.”

The Indians then knocked off Kutztown in the championship match. Game MVP Emily Thomas, a sophomore forward, scored twice, giving her four of the team’s five goals in the tournament. The other belonged to Falce, whose sterling statistics landed her in the Faces in the Crowd section of Sports Illustrated. In just two seasons, the sophomore from Duncansville has already set IUP career records for goals (43) and points (103). She led the PSAC in goals (1.26) and points per game (2.96) this season and ranked sixth and seventh nationally, respectively, in those categories.

“She’s amazing,” said Heder. “Twenty-nine goals at the collegiate level is not easy. I give her a lot of credit. At the same time, I give her teammates a lot of credit for helping her, for assisting her on those twenty-nine goals.”

Falce was clearly surrounded by a stellar cast. Three teammates—sophomore forward Crystal Heder (15 goals), the coach’s daughter; senior goalkeeper Sarah Daw; and sophomore defender Corey Weir—joined her on the All-PSAC West first team. Thomas (10 goals), junior midfielder Meghan Jones, senior midfielder Cora Roeder, and senior sweeper Missy Swindel earned second-team honors. No other school in the conference had as many players recognized.

“So many girls contributed,” Heder said. “That’s the good thing about this season, it wasn’t just one person. I give credit to everyone on that team for what we accomplished. Everyone contributed to the success.”

More success than an IUP women’s soccer team had ever achieved; more success than even an optimist of Chuck Tanner’s caliber could’ve dared expect. The same applied to the field hockey squad.

Rutger Wiese and Adel Heder, neighbors on the bottom floor of Memorial Field House, lifted their teams to the top. And, against all odds, finished the most successful seasons in school history alongside the NCAA’s elite.