Bears look to exterminate Spiders, secure tournament bid

Tony Zhou/File

Technically, the Cal field hockey team has already made it to the NCAA Tournament, but the Bears are still on the bubble.

As the winner of a nonautomatic qualifying conference, the Bears need to win one more game to guarantee a spot in Louisville, Ky., and be one of 16 teams in the nation competing for the championship.

Tuesday morning at 11 a.m, Cal will have control of its own postseason fate as Atlantic 10 winner Richmond visits Maxwell Field for the NCAA Play-In game.

“We’re just really excited for this opportunity,” senior co-captain Erin Magill said. “I feel like there’s not much pressure for us because we know exactly what we have to do to move on so we just feel free.”

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call this a must-win for the Bears, but it’s close.

A win on Tuesday would give Cal (16-3, 4-2 in the NorPac) one of the eight tournament spots reserved for conference and play-in game winners. A loss, on the other hand, would put Cal at the mercy of the NCAA selection committee, which must choose eight teams to fill the remaining at-large spots. Being the No. 16 team in the nation, the Bears might have just enough national exposure and big-times wins to sneak in even with a loss. But as it stands now, there are currently 11 teams ahead of Cal in the NCAA RPI rankings that won’t be automatic qualifiers. Inevitably, a number of high-ranking squads will miss out on the tournament.

Of course, a win against Richmond (15-6) would render that discussion moot.

The Spiders come into this game as one of the hottest teams in the nation, having won seven matches in a row, their last two to secure their Atlantic 10 Championship.

Senior forward Katelin Peterson leads her squad with 14 goals and 39 points on the year, but it’s probably Richmond’s defense that’s been the key to its success this season. Sophomore goalkeeper Anna Zarkoski has only allowed 1.38 goals per game this season, recording six shutouts in. More impressively, the Spiders blanked their opponents in their conference tournament and have only allowed one goal in their past five matches.

The Bears hope that their fast-paced, eighth-ranked offense will have enough firepower to outlast the Richmond defense. But if there’s one thing Cal has learned from its 1-0 victory over Stanford during Saturday’s NorPac Tournament title game, it’s that its defense is more than capable of carrying this team when it needs to.

“It definitely gives us more confidence now that we can win in more than one way,” Magill said. “Like in the Stanford game, we just put two great defensive halves together while in other games our offense steps up for us.”

During the weekend, tournament MVP Maddie Hand amassed 17 saves while allowing only two goals over her three-game run. More importantly, Hand came up big in the semifinals and finals, shutting out both Longwood and Stanford to put the Bears in this position.

“I think we’re playing as well as we have all season both offensively and defensively,” Magill said. “It doesn’t hurt that we’ll be at home either; the crowd will definitely give us a boost.”