On Sunday afternoon in Stanford, Calif., the Cal field hockey team finally got that monkey off its back.
Twice in the regular season, the Bears fell to the Cardinal, 3-2. Sunday’s NorPac Tournament finals between the rivals was again decided by one score, but this time, Cal tapped in the deciding goal.
Senior defender Erin Magill’s goal couldn’t have been more consequential. With the 1-0 victory, the No. 16 Bears sealed a berth into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.
“For awhile, I was taking going to the NCAA Tournament for granted, and I will never do that again,” coach Shellie Onstead told Calbears.com. “It’s awesome, and I am just really happy for our players. I am especially happy for our seniors.”
Throughout the season, Cal (16-3, 4-2 in the NorPac) has always had one fundamental mission in its mind: to win the NorPac Conference Tournament just to have the chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament. Inevitably, that journey involved going through No. 6 Stanford.
The Bears’ recent struggles against the Cardinal (17-3, 6-0) in tournament play have been well highlighted — losing four straight years to them in the tournament final. But this season, Cal fielded what was likely its strongest team of the decade, and this was undoubtedly the year to take that next step.
As expected, the Bears handled their business — defeating Radford and Longwood on Thursday and Friday respectively — setting up the Cal versus Stanford finals match for the fifth consecutive year.
Sunday afternoon at Varsity Turf Field, Cal couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the game as scoring opportunities presented themselves early on.
At the five minute mark of the first period, the Bears were awarded a penalty corner, and as she’s done all season, Magill knocked one in for her seventh goal of the season.
Surprisingly, this was all the offense the Bears would need for the rest of the game. The usual run-and-gun offense gave way, instead, to steady ball control and staunch defense by senior goalkeeper Maddie Hand, who finished with nine saves.
Cal relied on Hand’s excellent goalkeeping more than ever in the second half, when the Cardinal outshot the Bears, 11 to 2. In one of Stanford’s final desperation pushes, with fewer than 10 minutes remaining, Hand saved four shot attempts in under a minute to narrowly preserve Cal’s one-goal lead.
When the tournament ended, Hand had amassed 17 saves over the tournament while giving up only two goals — earning her a well-deserved tournament MVP award.
“We knew it would be a close game,” coach Shellie Onstead said. “We were prepared for it this time. We were persistent throughout the whole game. We didn’t have those couple of minutes that were off.
“Frankly, I think we are peaking at the right time and we are ready to make a deep run.”