A season ago, Lynchburg field hockey had all the makings of an NCAA Tournament team.
There was the experience, with three senior leaders who were versatile and smart, and able to both set up teammates and put the ball in the back of the cage, and there were the blowout wins, including one in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Tournament.
This year, UL faltered some out of the gate. Two games early in the season went down as tough losses. Another game ended in a 3-0 defeat.
With the loss of leadership after the 2018 campaign came an initial lack of confidence for Lynchburg.
But then something changed.
“I think this team has really risen,” coach Enza Steele said.
After falling to York on a Saturday in late September, the squad turned around and beat the second-ranked team in the nation. Then it kept on winning.
And on a frigid Saturday evening on its home field, Lynchburg picked up its 13th straight victory — and the most consequential win of the season — beating Shenandoah 2-0 in the 2019 edition of the ODAC tournament championship game.
Top-seeded UL (18-3), for the second straight year, claimed the trophy over second-seeded Shenandoah at Shellenberger Field, sending the home team sprinting to the campus victory bell after all the hardware was handed out.
“This group needed to believe they could do it,” said Steele, now in her 41st season at Lynchburg. “I think today might solidify, ‘We are confident, we can do this, and no one’s gonna take this away from us.’”
Steele, who clapped and jumped up and down on the sideline as the final seconds ticked off the clock, was just as happy as her players.
The excitement welled up down the stretch for the group of athletes clad in black skirts and jerseys , too.
Thanks to a late goal from Jackie Lerro, who let off a quick shot in the center of the field in the 52nd minute, Lynchburg — ranked 18th in the nation — had a 2-0 lead that wasn’t truly threatened as the game wore down.
UL’s defense, especially in the second half, showed off its stick skills in coming up with stops on any real scoring chances Shenandoah had, then weaved out of trouble and started the break up the field.
That’s how Lerro’s goal came about. Seconds before that score, Shenandoah had perhaps its best chance of the night to score. But Lynchburg’s defense executed the plan reiterated by Steele at halftime.
“‘They come in the circle, your whole stick’s down. I don’t want you doing anything [else]. They will bring the ball to you,’” Steele said of her message at intermission. “And that’s what they did.”
That started the break the other way, where Lerro gathered the ball in the middle of the field and smacked the ball into the back of the cage.
“I had no idea where the goalie was, I could just feel her presence,” Lerro said. “I just pulled a quick hit, and it made the difference not taking that split second to look where I was. The quick hit, I think we needed that the whole game, and I finally adjusted to just hitting the ball instead of trying to get a perfect shot.”
Instead of a 1-1 game, then, the defensive stand and Lerro goal gave Lynchburg a cushion and momentum in the intense contest.
“I think we just didn’t do the best job of taking advantage of our opportunities. We get one goal in and it’s a completely different game, and we have confidence and play with urgency then,” said Shenandoah coach Ashley Smeltzer-Kraft, who led her team to a 15-4 final record. “We just couldn’t get that one goal we needed.”
Maggie Chiappazzi, a junior forward for UL playing opposite her sister, Shenadoah freshman Martha Chiappazi, scored the game’s other goal. The elder Chiappazzi found the back of the cage less than three minutes into the second quarter when she gathered a deflection on the left side of the goal and put it in to help Lynchburg settle in.
The score was especially impressive to Steele because of Chippazzi’s work with her during the week on finding rebounds and putting them in the cage.
After Lerro’s late goal, Lynchburg — which outshot SU 16-5 and gave up just three penalty corners — recorded five more shots and drew four of its nine total penalty corners.
By then, the UL players and coaches could feel it. They knew the win was all but wrapped up.
“We were all really pumped up,” Lynchburg defender Alexis Brown said after the win, which solidified a spot in the NCAA Division III Tournament for her team. “… Hopefully we’ll just keep on winning from here on.”
Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.