NORFOLK, Va. – Sometimes, losses do help.
It was late October and the University of Connecticut field hockey team had just been whipped by Old Dominion, 5-0. It was first time that the Huskies had been shutout in 59 games dating back to 2010 and it was the most goals allowed in a single game in over a decade since 2002.. And the Huskies lost to then-No. 2 North Carolina the next day, 2-1.
Things had to change. And they did.
“We just turned it around mentally, the way we played the way we practiced,” UConn goalie Sarah Mansfield said. “Everything about the team has changed since then.”
The Huskies won the final two games of the regular season. They won the Big East Tournament championship, gaining a bit of revenge with a 1-0 win over Old Dominion in the finals. Yes, UConn’s field hockey team and women’s lacrosse teams are still in the Big East as associate members since the American Athletic Conference doesn’t sponsor competition in those two sports.
Connecticut continued its strong play in the NCAA Tournament culminating with a 2-1 win in a shootout over No. 3 North Carolina in the Final Four semifinals and a 2-0 victory over No. 5 Duke in the NCAA championship game on Sunday. It’s the third national title for the No. 4 Huskies (21-4) and the first since 1985.
“You need that one demoralizing loss to pick you up and get you where you were before,” Mansfield said. “I believe ODU did that for us so we owe them some respect and say thank you to them for making us a better team than we were before. I don’t think we would have been here without that loss.”
Duke had three good opportunities early in the game but Mansfield was up to the task, making three saves. The Huskies took a 2-0 lead in the first half, scoring off a pair of penalty corner opportunities.
Roisin Upton ripped a shot that Duke goalie Lauren Blazing was able to turn aside but the rebound squired to a wide-open Chloe Hunnable in front of the net and the junior popped in her 23rd goal of the season with 23:05 left in the first half for a 1-0 lead.
UConn made it 2-0 with 5:36 remaining in the first half off another penalty corner. Hunnable received the ball and ripped a low, hard shot to the lower right corner of the net. Teammate Mckenzie Townsend was in the perfect spot with her stick on the turf to redirect the ball up and past Blazing.
“On the attacking end Chloe and Mckenzie had two wonderful goals,” UConn coach Nancy Stevens said. “We were able to score off our corners and we figured corners would be the difference in the game. “Our attack corners were very good today and sometimes at the end of the day that is what wins you championships.”
Hunnable had two other opportunities for goals in the second half. She nearly tipped in a free hit from Chrissy Davidson but her redirected shot went just wide. Moments later, she ripped a shot that clanged off the crossbar and out of play.
Mansfield finished with five saves and earned her school record 30th career shutout. Marie Elena Bolles, Hunnable, Upton, Davidson and Mansfield were all named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team for their exceptional performances.
“I thought that our defensive effort was outstanding to get a shutout in the national championship game is significant,” Stevens said. “The defensive corner unit played great today and we have an outstanding goalkeeper in Sarah.”
Mansfield shared the credit defensively with her teammates. “It wasn’t just three or four defenders it was a real team effort and it starts from the strikers to Chloe to me to Sophie. So those guys it all starts with the defense first, and then we have people behind them, the midfielders work hard and we saw the mids work hard. Everyone just working so hard to get the ball.”
Stevens has won a championship as a player with West Chester State in 1975 and was an assistant on two Penn State teams that won national championships.
“At the end of the day it is about the players,” she said. “I didn’t make a pass today, I didn’t make a save, I didn’t score. It’s about the players, it is what I wanted for them.
“That is so empowering for young women to achieve at this level and to go through adversity and pull together that’s why we do what we do as coaches. When you see them face fears and be able to triumph over them, that is why we do it. To be bold and to take risks and our hope is they continue to do that after they finish their careers at Connecticut,” she said.