Ed. Note — This story will also appear in the Monday edition of The Eagle Tribune
NORTH ANDOVER — When Samantha Bartush was a freshman, the Merrimack field hockey team advanced to the national championship game in Pennsylvania, dropping a 1-0 decision to East Stroudsburg in the final.
Now Bartush and the rest of the Merrimack seniors have one more shot at a championship, and it’s not a shot they’re taking lightly.
Ranked No. 3 in the nation with a 13-1 record, the Warriors are in the home stretch of the regular season before the NE10 playoffs begin on Nov. 13.
Merrimack also finds itself in a unique situation. While this is the last chance for the senior class — they’ll obviously all graduate this coming May — it’s also the last chance at a championship for every player on the Merrimack roster. Next season, the Warriors will begin a four-year transitional period into Division I and the Northeast Conference, and the program will be ineligible for postseason competition.
“All of us have the mindset that this is our last chance for a while to compete for a championship,” said Bartush, who is captaining the team this season along with senior midfielder Mary McNeil and senior back Delaney Yule. “Our whole mindset is to go out with a bang, leave the NE10 with the league thinking of us highly and maybe even winning a championship. That’s our goal. This is our last chance to win the NE10 Championship so we want to do that. Then after that, we want to go as far as we can.”
Bartush said the team’s mindset has been sharp all season, and part of that focus has come from the Warriors realizing this is their last chance, for a while, to hang a banner at Duane Stadium. By the time Merrimack is postseason eligible again, every player on this roster will have earned their degrees.
“We’ve all been working together really well for that goal,” she said. “This is our last chance to compete for a championship for a while, so we have to go do it. We’re all seniors, this is everyone’s last chance.”
Doing Their Thing
When the Warriors are playing well, they’re controlling the play. Merrimack wants to dictate the game’s pace, and ball possession goes a long way in establishing that.
“We definitely want to play faster, but we also need to be controlled,” Bartush said. “We want the game to be played at our pace, we want to control that and not let the other team control it. A lot of it comes down to having possession of the ball and making good passes. In our perfect game, we’re in control and the game is at our pace.
But the Warriors have shown the ability to win in different ways. They’ve had a 9-0 win over Seton Hill, as well as two runaway wins (6-0 and 6-1) over AIC. At the same time, Merrimack has beaten Assumption 2-1 in double overtime and also has 3-2 wins over Southern New Hampshire and No. 10 LIU Post.
“It really shows how mentally tough we are,” Bartush said. “We have had games where we can get up 6-0 and hold onto it. Then we have had some games where we have been down 2-0 at the half, but have come around and battled back and won in the second half. We’re mentally tough and we can turn it on when we want to.”
Merrimack’s only blemish was a 3-2 loss to No. 2 East Stroudsburg … the same program that ousted the Warriors in the national championship game three years ago.
New coach, same success
Anne Rounce brought the Warriors on the verge of a national title in 2015, but the Warriors haven’t missed a beat under second-year head coach Megan Shea.
Shea, a star player at UNH, only graduated herself in 2010. Prior to joining the Merrimack staff, she was an assistant coach at UNH, Northeastern, and Columbia.
The Warriors are ranked as one of the top teams in the country and could be primed for another run at a national title.
“Meg has been awesome, especially this past year,” said Bartush. “She’s really young and she’s so smart. She knows so much about field hockey that we’ve all learned a lot from her. It’s awesome having her on our side. I think having our assistant coaches also being younger have been helpful. They’re both fresh out of college themselves, so they know exactly what we’re going through. They realize what we need as players because they were players not long ago.”
Merrimack has experience in big games and hopes that experience pays off over the next month.
“We’ve been there before,” Bartush said. “We know what the mindset needs to be. We’ve never been more focused.”