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A Dream Deferred

The best season in IUP field hockey history ended in the worst kind of way.

Positioned to claim a national title, the top-ranked Crimson Hawks lost 4-3 in the NCAA Division II semifinals to Bloomsburg, an opponent they had already defeated three times. Instead of a celebration, IUP’s visit to the Final Four in Lowell, Mass., ended with a cascade of tears and faces longer than an Easter Island statue’s.

Liz Martini

“You go to national championships to win, not to participate,” said coach Rutger Wiese. “At the end, if you don’t win, it’s disappointing. Very disappointing. I mean, we were good enough to win it all.”

Indeed, the 17-4 Crimson Hawks were the class of Division II for much of the season. They spent five weeks atop the STX/National Field Hockey Coaches Association poll, rarified air no IUP team had ever breathed; set a school record for winning percentage (.810); posted the second-highest win total in the program’s history; captured their first Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles; and reeled off a school-record nine consecutive victories, a torrid stretch during which they outscored the opposition 27-5.

It was a landmark season. It just wasn’t good enough.

After dominating the most competitive Division II conference in America, where every match rivals the do-or-die intensity of a gladiatorial duel at the Colosseum, the Hawks failed in their bid to hoist the trophy they really wanted.

“We weren’t even shooting for a PSAC championship—we were shooting for a national championship,” said junior midfielder Sylvia Guerrieri, a first-team all-conference selection along with senior defender Liz Martini and sophomore goalkeeper Lydia Dolly, who led Division II in goals-against average (0.88) and shutouts (11). “That’s what kind of makes me upset—because of that loss I can’t really enjoy the other championship.”

The Crimson Hawks electrified the crowd at Miller Stadium on successive afternoons en route to their first PSAC tournament title. IUP edged Shippensburg 1-0 in the semifinals on a goal by sophomore forward Brittany Owens with 19.9 seconds left in regulation, then dethroned Bloomsburg 4-3 in the final when Owens struck again 12:27 into overtime.

Alas, the PSAC championship trophy was the last IUP would claim in 2007.

“It definitely is a good memory, but I know everyone on the team is like, yeah, we won PSAC, but our hearts were into nationals,” said Martini, who ranked seventh nationally in goals (0.86) and points (2.1) per game. “Everyone went into the Final Four thinking—knowing—that we could win. To not come out with a national championship is just devastating.”

It was Martini who helped to set the tone for what, in many respects, was IUP’s most successful season of field hockey since the program debuted in 1971. She matched a school record with four goals in a 5-1 rout of Bloomsburg on September 11, a victory that snapped the Huskies’ twenty-eight-game winning streak and vaulted IUP to No. 1 for the first time ever.

The Crimson Hawks toppled the defending national champions again a month later when freshman midfielder Barbara Heemelaar scored with twenty-four seconds remaining to snap a 1-1 tie. After IUP bumped off the Huskies a third time in the PSAC final, Wiese’s team seemed destined to make a run at a national crown.

“Everything was in place this year,” he said. “We beat Bloomsburg three times. We had a really good shot.”

Sylvia Guerreri

But the Hawks’ hopes evaporated faster than a puddle in the Sahara when the teams clashed at nationals. Bloomsburg jumped in front with 27:35 elapsed and stretched its lead to 4-0 as the IUP players shook their heads in disbelief. The Hawks did mount a stirring comeback, Martini scoring twice around a goal by Guerrieri, but the Huskies weathered the blitz and advanced to the final, where they secured their school’s eleventh Division II title.

Bloomsburg’s jubilant departure from Lowell contrasted sharply with the Crimson Hawks’ anguished exit and agonizing thoughts of what might have been.

“It definitely was one of the most heartbreaking games I’ve ever played,” Martini said. “None of us wanted it to end like that. If we would have only started the game like we finished the game, it might have been a different story.”

Instead, it was the same old story. Bloomsburg expelled the Crimson Hawks from the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive year, three times after the teams reached the Final Four.

Yet in a sense, that record actually represents a sign of progress. The odds of IUP’s making a national tournament appearance were once longer than Pinocchio’s nose. In fact, before Wiese arrived in 2003, the Crimson Hawks’ postseason experience consisted of a single game. The NCAA tournament has since become a de facto part of their schedule, an about-face for a program that not so many years ago struggled to qualify for even its conference tournament.

“We’re kind of expected to be in nationals every year now,” said Martini. “It’s a given that we’ll be there. It’s not like, well, IUP has a shot. Everyone knows IUP will be there.”

The Crimson Hawks are perennial national championship contenders, if not yet a national champion.

“Let’s be honest. The year before I came here, they were 2-6 in the conference. We were the absolute bottom of the bottom,” Wiese said. “This year we were 12-2 in the conference. We are nationally top three every year, which is pretty good. So we’ve gone from the absolute bottom to the top.”

At least in the conference. Unfortunately, the Crimson Hawks are still looking to reach the top in Division II. All because the best season in IUP history had the worst kind of ending.