Back in 2018, the Rowan field hockey team reached the NCAA Division III Final Four for the first time with Head Coach Michelle Andre at the helm and faced off against Middlebury College.
Four years and two semifinal losses to the Panthers later, the Profs once again are set to face their now-familiar postseason foe in the 2022 Final Four on Friday, Nov. 18.
“It’s definitely tough playing Middlebury,” senior captain Bridget Guinan said. “The last two final fours I was at we played Middlebury and lost to them, so it’s more of a personal game for us.”
In that first game against Middlebury in this series of postseason matchups, current veterans of the team like Guinan, Liz Fox, Kristiina Castagnola and Morgan Mulvey were there to witness the 4-2 loss. Guinan was the one to give the Profs their only postseason lead over the Panthers in this four-year span, scoring the first goal of this game almost three minutes in, a lead that would last less than four minutes.
2021 provided the opportunity for Rowan to earn redemption, but once again the Profs came up short against Middlebury in the Final Four, as they lost that game by an even bigger deficit of 4-1.
In both of those seasons, Middlebury went on to win the national championship and now the stage is set for the third time for Rowan to attempt to keep the Panthers from repeating history.
“I’ve been expecting to possibly play them since last November,” Coach Andre said. “They’re a good team, they’re a well-polished team, they’ve won multiple national championships in a row, they know how to do it, they’ve been here before, but so have we and we know, I believe we’ve learned our lessons throughout the years and now this is it.”
Despite the fact that just like in 2018 and 2021 Middlebury is the No. 1 team in the nation going into this matchup, Rowan truly believes this is their best chance of finally conquering this challenge.
“A big thing for us is that right now all our forwards, our mids are hot,” Castagnola said. “People have been really able to finish in the cage later we’ve gotten in this season. I think that’s going to play a big part in what we’re going to do on Friday.”
Looking at the two teams, they are very evenly matched, which more closely resembles the squads in 2018 compared to 2021.
The Profs are ahead of Middlebury in goals scored, scoring 105 goals this season compared to their 102, but are neck-and-neck in most other aspects. Middlebury averages 5.10 goals per game and only allows 0.60 while Rowan averages 4.77 goals per game and only allows 0.91.
Knowing all of this, defensive leader Melissa Donaldson has a feeling about what type of game to expect against this team.
“It’s going to be more defense-heavy,” Donaldson said. “But I think as long as we just be ourselves, play like we’ve been playing, I think we can truly shut them down. We’re definitely going to see more shots then we’ve seen recently, I think they usually put up around 20 shots a game to be honest. So our goal is basically just to limit that, keep them out of our circle as much as possible.”
While comparing numbers is important in this big of a game, it is also important to consider the factors that can not be found on a stats sheet.
One of these factors is the fact that this is going to be their third meeting in five years, and while the Profs know every team they face is different, they have also been able to take lessons from those games.
“We’ve changed a couple things from the start of the season because of that  game,” Coach Andre said. “I feel like we got exposed in some areas and we’ve done a good job of minimizing those exposures this year and when we have gotten exposed we’ve been able to fix as we’ve gone along.”
Along with the lessons learned about minimizing their own exposures, they’ve also learned the style of play this Middlebury program has.
“Basically what you’re going to see, you’re going to see a full field game,” Coach Andre said. “Everybody’s going to need to play end to end, it’s almost like full-court basketball, you’re going from end to end and it doesn’t matter if you’re a high forward or a low back.”
With all of the game aspects accounted for, there are also two factors that have to be considered. First and foremost, Rowan is a team that is out for vengeance and they will have the huge advantage of looking for this vengeance on their home field, with the Final Four being hosted in Glassboro.
“It’s truly revenge at this point,” Donaldson said. “So we’re just going into it, we’re going to play our best game possible and we just really want to win and get revenge from last year and we know we can do it on our home field.”
If Rowan is finally able to beat Middlebury this upcoming Friday, it will mean so much more to them than just making the national championship game for the first time since 2002.
“I know Friday isn’t the national championship, it’s the semifinals but I think if we come out on top in that game and come out on the other side winning, I think it in itself [would be] poetic justice,” Castagnola said. “To win that game is more than just this team right now, it’s for that team last year, that team in 2018 I was on and also for the team prior that have made NCAA appearances and just haven’t been able to get this far, and I think just that really excites me and I know it motivates the rest of my team.”
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