Higgins Stadium was abuzz with excitement Nov. 7 as the Ithaca Bombers field hockey team prepared to compete in its first-ever Empire 8 field hockey tournament final against Stevens Institute of Technology. The tournament-hosting Bombers were expected to make the final. They finished the regular season at 12–4, 7–1 within the conference, and earned the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Stevens was a surprise entrant in the final, having knocked off the heavily favored and second-seeded St. John Fisher College Cardinals 2–1 in overtime in their semi-final matchup Nov. 6.
The Bombers boasted a strong defense and even stronger goaltending coming into the final. Over their 16 regular season games and one post-season matchup, they allowed a total of 12 goals, the best in the Empire 8. On the flip side, Stevens featured a potent offense, leading the way with 51 goals.
The Bombers came out with early offensive pressure, attempting two penalty corners seven minutes into the game, but failed to convert on either opportunity. Senior captain and midfielder Olivia Salindong and junior Colleen Keegan-Twombly took shots on the Stevens net, but Salindong’s was saved by the Duck’s junior goalie Emily Stukenborg and Keegan-Twombly’s shot trickled wide of the net.
With 16 minutes to go in the first half, Stevens broke the ice. Junior Taylor Welch fed a perfect entry pass to sophomore Cassidy O’Hearn, who ripped a shot into the bottom left corner of the net, beating a diving Katie Lass, the Bombers’ junior goalie. It was only the seventh time this season a Bombers opponent had scored first.
The Blue and Gold would bounce back with 11 minutes remaining. Sophomore forward Amanda Schell started a penalty corner with a pass that bounced around before finding the stick of senior Caitlin O’Brien, who ripped a shot into the lower right hand side of the net, knotting the game at one apiece.
With 5:41 remaining, Stevens was awarded a penalty shot. In a man-on-man matchup between the Ducks’ Dailyn Brook and Lass, it would be the Bombers’ superb goalie who came out on top. Brook stepped into a shot, but Lass deflected it wide to keep the game tied at one, which would be the score at the half.
Four minutes into the second half, the Ducks would regain the lead. Once again, it was Welch who got the ball rolling, firing an entry pass on a penalty corner to sophomore Dailyn Brook, who beat Lass to the right post, staking Stevens to a 2–1 lead.
With 13 minutes remaining, Stevens extended its lead. Sophomore Victoria Alvarez received a perfect pass from Brook and fired a shot past Lass. On the play, senior captain Laurel Shnider took a stick to the face and was down behind the play, but the referees allowed the goal, making it 3–1 Stevens.
Shortly after Alvarez’s tally, the Ducks would strike again. Brook cut in front of the Bomber net and slid the ball under Lass, inflating the Stevens lead to 4–1. From there, the Ducks would rely on solid defense to run out the clock and claim their first E8 title since 2010.
Head coach Tracey Houk said she felt immense pride in her team, but understands the team’s feeling of unfinished business.
“We need to digest this season first before we move on,” Houk said. “It’s a heartbreaking loss, no doubt, but we’re going appreciate the hard work we did to get here.”
O’Brien, who suffered a cut to the head in the semi-finals, but was in action for the game, said how proud she was to lead the team to this point, despite falling short of its ultimate goal.
“The bond that we built was incredible,” O’Brien said. “We wouldn’t have been here without it. We fought hard tonight and it didn’t go our way, but I couldn’t be any prouder.”
Salindong echoed the sentiments of her fellow senior and captain. She also said just getting to the final for the first time in the Empire 8 tournament was an accomplishment in its own right.
“Everyone came together, and we always worked hard,” Salindong said. “We’ve never gotten here, and we’ve never hosted. We played tough but just couldn’t put the ball in the net.”
With the win, Stevens earns an automatic bid to the Division III NCAA field hockey championships. This is their fourth championship in five appearances under the playoff format.