“Those who have the will to win can’t be beaten.”
That phrase, chosen by its seniors, was the theme of the 2002 Rowan field hockey team, the only women’s team to bring home an NCAA Division III national championship to Glassboro.
“I remember it vividly to be honest. It was just a unified group of young women who really believed in what we were doing,” said Lindsay Delaney, one of those seniors who, at the time, went by her maiden name Hanson. “We knew we were talented and we were ready to compete and we decided very early on, before the season even started, that we would be in the national championship.”
That team, which returned all but two starters from a 2001 starting lineup that finished 14-4, was so confident that it had Head Coach Penny Kempf print that saying on its shirts for the season.
“They came to me and said ‘we decided what we want on our t-shirt,’ and they said ‘those who have the will to win can not be beat,’’’ Kempf said. “And in my head, I was thinking, ‘that’s a really, really bold statement.’ I was like ‘alright, let’s go with it.’”
According to another senior leader, Jammie Hicks, the Profs’ confidence came from the knowledge that their team had all the factors to be perfect.
“It was such good, South Jersey talent. All of us were the best from our high schools, but when you put that all together, it doesn’t always gel as well,” Hicks said. “Our team, we truly cared about each other and we would get together after practice and talk about gameplans and things and it was just everyone was on the same page and everyone had the same goal. And whether you were on the field or on the bench, everybody had the same mentality and the same will to win.”
The talent was clear right out of the gate, as the team started outscoring opponents 16-0 in its first three games. However it was in the fourth game, a 4-3 victory over Messiah University, that Coach Kempf believes the real turning point of that season arrived.
“At some point, athletes have to realize that it’s not the coaches that are going to take you to a championship, they only help you get there,” Kempf said.
In what Kempf remembers to be a frantic game, one of the team’s senior leaders yelled out to her while heading to midfield during a corner “We need a timeout.” Kempf turned to her assistant and said “I’m not calling a timeout,” because she knew this was make or break time.
What followed that victory was another 13 victories, leading the Profs to a perfect 17-0 regular season record — though the team treated it almost like a no-hitter in baseball.
“The first thing with a perfect record is no one talked about it,” Becky Peterson, the team’s All-American junior forward, said. “You don’t say it out loud, you just go about your business every day. We knew what it was, we knew what we could do but you just never say it out loud.”
The perfect record didn’t come without adversity, however. Lousy weather, bad officials, some sniping in the locker room — the Profs endured it all at some point during the season.
“It wasn’t like we went 21-0 that season and it was all awesome,’’ Kempf said. “There were a lot of things we had to overcome with that and so our motto just became, ‘whatever.’”
“Whatever came our way, we were going to deal with it, conquer it and move on,” Hicks added. “Whether that was at practice or a game, regular season, postseason, whatever it took, whatever was required, whatever was needed of us, we did it.”
That mentality continued into the postseason, as the Profs did what it took to get past their first two NCAA tournament opponents, defeating McDaniel College 4-1, and the University of Mary Washington 5-0. That launched the Profs into the Final Four in Springfield, Massachusetts, where they faced their biggest challenge of the season in the semifinals — Salisbury University.
As Rowan’s chances of making the national championship game and completing their perfect season hung in the balance, the Profs battled it out with the 17-2 Seagulls into double overtime.
“That semifinal game was probably more stressful than the actual national championship game itself,” Peterson said. “It was so close, we were so evenly matched. It was just such a crazy game, back-and-forth, and then the ovetimes and you just try to hold it together, not panic.”
Rowan was able to replicate what they did against Salisbury in the regular season, scoring two goals in regulation. Unlike their 2-0 victory earlier that year, Salisbury answered with two of its own goals, tying the score 2-2. After a scoreless overtime, 13 seconds into the second OT, Hicks emerged as the hero.
“I missed two penalty strokes before that, so I was like ‘I have to do this, we have to win, I have to make up for that,’ and there was just so much energy pent up and excitement and nervousness pent up,” Hicks said. “In double overtime, I got the ball and just started dribbling down the field and I made a move on the goalie and I reverse put it in. And it was almost as if I didn’t even know it truly happened until my team tackled me to the ground.”
That one shot from Hicks kept Rowan’s goals alive and took them to the national championship where they would once again face off against Messiah.
“We had played Messiah earlier in the year and we all said to ourselves ‘that was a championship game right there.’ We knew it,” Hicks said. “We felt it in the season.”
Coming off the closest game the team had been in all season, the Profs went into the title game knowing that nothing was guaranteed.
“I think it [the semifinals game] was a good little gut-check for it. We were never cocky, or anything, so it’s not like we needed to be humbled, but it was like holy crap, that could have ended,” Peterson said. “So I think it made us go into the championship game just even more hyper-focused… I think it just made us even step it up an extra notch because we knew nothing was going to be any more easy with Messiah. They were an unbelievable team too.”
The championship game was another tight battle between the two, with only one goal scored throughout 60 minutes of play. That one goal came off the stick of the Profs’ Michelle Thornton to end the first half.
“The game was super close, we had so many great opportunities we didn’t capitalize on. They had some really nice ones,” Delaney said. “But I feel like we dominated the whole game. They had some moments, but I feel like we had many more opportunities to capitalize on. Michelle Thornton scored the goal on a corner and we knew.”
Once Rowan took the 1-0 lead, all they had to do was hold on — the defense in particular. For senior goalie Chrissy Buteas, who had recorded 11 saves that season, the pressure was on.
“I was just thinking ‘just stop the ball and just try to stay focused on the game, keep my head in the game.’ I trained all season for it,” Buteas said. “But, let me tell you, I had a fantastic defense.”
While Thornton’s goal put the win in reach, it was a play made by a key member of the defense, Delaney, that secured the championship for this team. With under a minute left, Messiah made a two-on-one break towards the goal, but Delaney was able to strip the ball in what she told The Whit in 2002 was “probably the most exciting moment of the game.”
“When it happened and our defender fell and they came on a big breakaway, I just did what I did every day during practice,” Delaney said. “So it wasn’t like I made some miraculous play. It was just my attackers, who I went against every day, I felt was better than anybody else that I went against. So if I could defend them, I was really confident in the moment that I could defend that situation.”
Delany’s confidence and the confidence of this team throughout the entire season was properly placed. When the clock hit four zeroes, the 2002 Rowan University field hockey team were indeed national champions after defeating Messiah 1-0.
“I cried happy tears for the first time in my life,” Kempf said. “And I wish I could have just frozen time for a moment, but it goes so fast… You wish you could bottle it up a little bit just to remember what it felt like.”
The women from that team can all still remember what it felt like to reach the top of that mountain, and some even have everyday reminders of it.
Delaney is now the current head coach of the Rowan women’s lacrosse team. Peterson coached one of the girls on the current Final Four-bound Rowan field hockey team in high school. Hicks reunited with Peterson years later, and the two are now married.
“Jammie [Hicks] and I always joke, ‘we got two important rings.’ We got that national championship ring and then we got our wedding rings,” Peterson said. “Like, there’s nothing that beats that.”
The impact of that 2002 season — their perfect 21-0 season, their national championship trophy and the love they had for that team — keeps the former teammates talking about it 20 years later.
“It was one of the top things I’ve ever done in my life because it took so much determination and so much confidence and skill and relying on your teammates and knowing everyone has the same goal. And now we talk about it all the time,” Hicks said. “How could you not? It wasn’t just we were the first women to win a national championship for the school; it wasn’t just we won it ourselves; and it wasn’t just we went undefeated. It was all of that put together.”
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