Defense wins championships. The Vassar Field Hockey team provided a convincing argument for this oft-repeated saying on Saturday, Nov. 1, as they took home their first-ever Liberty League Championship in a 1-0 shutout of the University of Rochester Yellow Jackets.
Senior captain Monica Feeley commented on how special this victory was for the team: “We worked so hard for this, and [as a senior] I’ve been working hard for four years to finally get to this, so we’re just so happy.”
Feeley, a defender, took home the award for the tournament’s Most Outstanding Performer, as she was a key member of a defense that did not allow a goal across both games of the tournament. The performance of Feeley, and the defense as a whole, was key to the team’s victory in what was the program’s first-ever appearance in the Liberty League Championship game.
Junior forward Steph Palma emphasized the historic and emotional natures of the team’s victory, saying: “[It’s] a little crazy. It’s the first time in history that Vassar has even been on the board to win, so the fact that we actually got to do it this year is amazing … We’ve been working for this all season. It‘s really really nice that we finally could come together as a unit and get the job done.”
While a 1-0 result is rare in what is normally a higher-scoring sport, this result was not entirely unpredictable given the nature of the two teams competing in the finals. Vassar (18-1) and Rochester (18-2) were first and second respectively in the Liberty League in least goals allowed per game, and Vassar had only allowed seven goals across 18 Liberty League games prior to the finals.
According to senior captain Alyssa More, in this particular game, the Brewers’ stalwart defense also deserves much of the credit for Vassar’s ability to produce offensive opportunities against the Yellowjackets. “I think defensive effort was what won us the game,” More proclaimed. “Our defensive corners were key and our transition into offense from them caught Rochester, an offensive powerhouse, off guard.”
More herself also deserves credit for Vassar’s offensive success, her attacks down the right flank creating many of the Brewers’ chances during the game, as Rochester proved unable to contain her quick moves forward.
More also scored the lone goal of the game, which came 15 minutes into the second period. Senior midfielder Mikayla Young took a corner from the left-hand side of the field, which was controlled by senior captain Megan Caveny. Caveny quickly passed the ball to More, who slotted it home past the Rochester goalie and charging defense.
The fact that this goal came off a corner was especially meaningful to the team, as head coach Michael Warari had stressed prior to the game that Vassar needed to focus on corners on both sides of the ball. On the defensive end, Vassar faced six corners and did not allow a single goal, a testament to the outstanding play of their defenders and junior goalkeeper Liz Rotolo. Rotolo was credited with three saves on the day, as Rochester fired off 11 shots, seven on target.
Palma praised the performance of Rotolo and the whole backline: “Our defense was spectacular,” she raved. “We had a few defensive corners which you never like to give up, but they did an amazing job … [Rotolo] kept us in the game, and without them, I don’t think we could have won.”
A happy Warari said of the victory, “[I] couldn’t be prouder. The team played extremely well; they were resilient; they worked hard and never gave up and as a coach you can’t ask for anything more than that. Yeah, [I’m] extremely proud.”
This victory and the Liberty League Championship guaranteed the Brewers a berth in the upcoming NCAA Division III tournament. The team, which was ranked sixth in the country even before their win over the ninth-ranked Yellowjackets, has also earned a bye into the second round of the competition. While this tournament is a chance for the Brewers to continue achieving unprecedented results for the program, both coach and players stressed that they don’t want to get caught up in the importance of the game and will approach it like any other.
“We’re gonna try not to focus so much on the magnitude that it’s the NCAAs. We’re gonna continue the same mindset we’ve had all season,” Warari insisted. “Just one game at a time, be true to the game…prepare really hard, show up mentally ready and focus on each and every possession and do our best.”
Vassar’s first match in the tournament will be against the winner of the firstround match between The College of New Jersey—ranked seventh in the NCAA, two spots behind of Vassar—and Keystone College. The game will take place this Saturday, Nov. 10, at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Although any opponent they face in the NCAA tournament will be a tough out, the Brewers are confident in themselves and their teammates, and their record over the course of the season suggests they are poised to continue achieving program firsts. “If we just keep doing [what we’ve been doing] and keep the focus and intensity up, then the next team should be easy to us,” Palma declared.