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FIeld Hockey Set to Take On NCAA Field

(Posted November 12, 2004)

Grace McCluskey is one of eight Juniata seniors who have helped take the field hockey program to new heights.

Huntingdon, PA - Three years ago there was no way to expect what has happened for the Juniata College field hockey team in 2004. Juniata had finished 7-12 the previous season, and then posted a 4-12 record in 2001. But through those challenging seasons, the foundation was being built for what has become arguably the greatest stretch in the program's history. And leading the way is a group of seniors who endured those early struggles, and now have Juniata in position to compete for a National Championship. The quest will begin on Saturday when Juniata (14-4) takes on Cortland State (15-2) in an NCAA Regional Semifinal in Middlebury, Vt.

Five Eagle seniors saw significant playing time in their freshmen seasons and have now helped lead this year's team to the program's first NCAA Tournament berth. Janine Hartman (Whitehall/Whitehall), Betsy Kusniez (Boyertown/Gilbertsville), Grace McCluskey (West Perry/Elliotsburg), Billie Rickenbaugh (East Juniata/McAlisterville) and Melonie Sappe' (Dallas/Shavertown) are five of the team's eight seniors who have helped Juniata reach its current level. Head Coach Caroline Gillich believes that getting thrown into the first early on has contributed to the group's success.

"These players have a great deal of experience after playing basically every game since they came to Juniata," Gillich explained. "That experience has given them a confidence that some of our other teams here have not had.

That confidence may have been this difference this season, as the Eagles have shown an uncanny ability to pull-out close victories. Among Juniata's 14 wins are seven one-goal triumphs, including one overtime victory and a pair of wins in penalty shootouts. At least one of Juniata's seniors sees the team's success as a direct result of the ability to finish off close games.

"Over these past four years we gained that edge, we know we are good enough to win tight games and we have the confidence to do it," McCluskey explains. "This program has never lacked individual talent we've just learned how to put it all together over the years. And that is what has made the difference between a winning and losing record."

Putting it all together includes Juniata placing six players on this year's Commonwealth All-Conference Team. It also includes adding more and more talented players to the program to complement the senior group.

Juniata's leading scorer this season is freshman Kim Wagner (Middletown/Middletown) while there are two other freshmen regularly earning spots in the starting lineup. Several strong recruiting classes have given the Eagles unparalleled depth and versatility, which has been as important a factor as any to this team's winning ways.

But along with the contributions of the newcomers and other veterans, this postseason will be a chance for the Eagle seniors to put one final stamp on the Juniata College field hockey program. They already have insured their place in College Hill history as arguably the most decorated class in program history. Any success in the NCAA Tournament would just be icing on the cake for this group.

"It's a dream come true to be on a winning, nationally-ranked fun team," Kusniez explains. "On the other hand I can believe it because of all the hard work and dedication that each member of the team puts into each season. We have pushed each other to go beyond what we though we could and have achieved uncommon levels of success."

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Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.