Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
Junior goalkeeper Sasha Elliott sat down to watch a field hockey game the day before the Rams played in the Atlantic 10 semifinals and stumbled across Bucknell playing in the Patriot League tournament semifinals. She continued to watch the game, not thinking much of it.
Three days later, and the Rams were paired with the Bison in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“I watched their game on Thursday and I’ve been kind of following them throughout the season,” Elliott said of Bucknell. “I definitely think they’re going to be a tough team.”
The Rams earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament after winning the Atlantic 10 title on Saturday afternoon, beating three-time defending champion St. Joseph’s 2-0 at Cary Street Field.
Friday afternoon’s meeting with the Bison on Penn State’s campus won’t be the first, as the two teams met in Richmond during the 2019 season, when the Rams lost 2-1.
Sophomore forward Lonica McKinney said she’s excited about the pairing with the Bison because it’s a winnable matchup.
“I think that we really have a chance to beat them,” McKinney said. “It’s not just like, ‘Oh, well, we don’t have much of a chance,’ like we can actually beat them.”
Elliott said when the team watched the NCAA selection show together on Saturday night and saw their name appear with Bucknell, she knew it was a good pairing for the black and gold.
“For them to call Bucknell, for us, is really good because we know they’re manageable,” Elliott said. “We know that we could beat them.”
Coach Stacey Bean said the Bison like to substitute a lot in the midfield, to create more space for their backs to find their forwards when on offense. She said her team will have to stay focused while Bucknell does that, remembering not to chase players around the field.
“For us, it’s about being disciplined and holding our structure in the midfield so that we can be in those interception lines, get the interception and then counterattack with numbers,” Bean said.
Even though it’s the first NCAA tournament game for the entire black and gold’s roster, Bean said they’re treating the game as similar to a regular game as much as they can. The only difference is that the team has one day to watch film instead of two, so the team can travel to Pennsylvania after Wednesday morning’s practice.
The Rams, who are 9-0 this season, logged their first undefeated season in program history and won their first A-10 title, the latter being a preseason goal set by the team, Elliott said.
“I think it was kind of like satisfying or like a weight lifted off our shoulders because we worked so hard for this,” Elliott said. “This year, we were undefeated and I think it just felt very rewarding to finally actually win it.”
Not only did the win lift the weight from the players’ shoulders, but it also solidified the team’s season-long motto.
“We didn’t get this far to only get this far,” Elliott said, reciting the mantra.
The Rams have logged five shutouts this season, while only allowing five goals through their first nine contests. Elliott has logged 29 saves this season en route to the five clean sheets.
“We would not be where we are without our defense,” McKinney said. “Our defenders always seem to come up with it and make those great tackles. And then if it does get through them, I always rely on Sasha to do what she does best and keep it out of he net.”
Elliott said part of the team’s defensive strategy is “managing” teams, forcing them to take uncomfortable shots.
“We try to manage every situation and give the other team the worst possible angle shot or put a lot of pressure on the ball that they get a bad shot off,” Elliott said. “And we scout another team really well in terms of their corners. So we know what’s going to happen.”
Elliott added that the team’s backline is composed of juniors, so after three years of playing together, they’re on the same page defensively and know where each person will be in different situations.
“Throughout this season, it just got better and we set up so strong defensively and then we don’t freak out either when we don’t get many chances,” Elliott said. “We just keep on playing and then in the fourth quarter or the end of the game, we find our chances and we use them.”
The Rams will play Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday at noon at the Penn State Field Hockey Complex.