One year ago last weekend, Michigan State field hockey coach Michele Madison sat in the regional championship post-game press conference reeling for answers after Michigan stole a 2-1 victory in East Lansing. Replaying controversial goals in her head and questioning the officiating, Madison struggled with the reality that her team’s season had come to an abrupt halt.
Sunday’s regional championship game brought a reversal of roles. This time it was Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz left to contemplate a lost trip to the final four. Michigan State orchestrated a 3-2 comeback victory at Ocker Field, earning a spot in next weekend’s NCAA Field Hockey Championship semifinal.
“It’s a great rivalry, and it makes both of our teams better,” Pankratz said. “It’s a shame that we have to meet each other in the regional every year, because I think a lot of times both teams deserve to be in the final four.”
After tense opening minutes, Michigan fans were able to break into “The Victors” as the game approached the halfway point of the first half. Senior Jessica Blake fired the ball across the circle and Adrienne Hortillosa found herself in just the right spot. Hortillosa dove forward and managed to redirect the ball past helpless Spartan goalkeeper Christina Kirkaldy.
But Spartan senior Annebet Beerman spoiled the party just three minutes later. After Michigan State began to threaten, Beerman held the ball at the top of the circle. Before Michigan goalkeeper Beth Riley had a chance to react, Beerman sent it to Riley’s left, tying the game at one.
Hortillosa gave the Wolverines a one-goal lead just before the half, scoring off of a penalty corner. Michigan seemed in complete control going into the break up 2-1, but Michigan State was far from giving in.
“It’s a long game,” Madison said. “We started reacting to the umpire’s calls, and they are part of the game. They were getting distracted by the fans. I said ‘We have to get this game back between the lines.’ ”
After the half, Michigan State dug down deep and fought back when the second half rolled around. After two minutes, Spartan senior Veerle Goudswaard once again rendered Riley helpless with a shot across the circle for her thirty-first goal of the season. With the goal, Goudswaard broke the Michigan State single-season goals record.
Among shouts of encouragement from their reserves and fans, the Spartans quickly took control of a game that had seemed out of reach only minutes before. Michigan State’s players had decided at halftime that the game was theirs to win.
“We just emptied our buckets,” Beerman said. “Everybody played with heart and played hard. We gave it all, I guess.”
Michigan’s defense held strong, and the Wolverines inched closer to taking a lead. Shots flew wide or were blocked, dives fell an inch short — so it was up to the defense to keep the game at hand.
“I think (Michigan’s defense) did a nice job,” Hortillosa said. “We had nice low tackles. Michigan prides itself on its defense, not just scoring, but defense as a whole, and that’s something we tried to work on all year long. It just didn’t come out for us today.”
Spartan forwards managed to breach the Michigan defense only once more. But it was that single goal that ended Michigan’s season.
Michigan State sophomore Ashley Pernicano broke the tie with a tip-in after a free hit. Goudswaard took the free hit just outside of the circle and Pernicano managed to get her stick on it to poke it behind several defenders and past a diving Riley.
The Wolverines continued to put pressure on Kirkaldy and the Spartan defense, but there were no holes to be found, and Spartan fans began celebrating as the clock wound down to zero.
But Michigan was granted a second life. A Spartan defender committed a stick-checking penalty as time expired, and the Wolverines were awarded a penalty corner. On the ensuing penalty corner, the ball skipped over Hillman’s stick and the game appeared over, but a second, untimed penalty corner was called.
This time the pass from Lentz was on target, the set by Hillman was on, and Hortillosa hammered the ball to the left side, hoping to catch the goal or even a teammate’s stick, but it rolled some 6 feet wide of the left post and the Spartans were headed to the final four.
“You can’t really quantify the whole match with just that last corner,” Hortillosa said. “There was tons of pressure, of course, but I tried to stay as calm as I could and get a good shot. Getting the second chance felt like it was a sign that maybe we could tie it up. It was the same corner as the original one was set up, and it just went wide. The game is full of those situations where you could say, ‘I wished I would have done this different,’ but we’re not going to do that.”
While they won’t have a chance to compete in next week’s final four, the Wolverines are surely counting the days until their seemingly inevitable rematch next November.