An Upset Built Over an Entire Season

The Geneseo field hockey team’s win over Oswego on Oct. 25 had a good news/bad news feel to it. The win qualified the Knights for the SUNYAC post-season tournament, however they would have to play top-seeded Cortland on their home turf. The Red Dragons were undefeated in SUNYAC play, ranked second in the region and victors of their last 10 games—including a 6-0 win over the Knights less than 10 days prior.

Cortland’s 2014 accomplishments were not the only factors that could intimidate. Perennial power is a label that can easily be applied to the Red Dragon field hockey program, having claimed three NCAA titles and 14 of 17 SUNYAC championships. Geneseo head coach Jess Seren has first-hand knowledge of the considerable success, having been a four-year starter during her collegiate career (2003-2006) at Cortland, which included trips to the NCAA Tournament each season.

But in a vivid reminder of why the games are played on the field and not on paper, Geneseo pulled off an improbable upset, 2-1. Seren recently looked back on the Nov. 5 game and in particular, the steps she took to prepare the team for this one contest. Yet, as the conversation indicates, it’s clear that the win was the product of decisions made and directions chosen before and during the season.

Q. You started four first-years and two sophomores against Cortland. At the beginning of the season did you expect to have such a young lineup by season’s end, or did it evolve that way?

A. Right from the beginning of the season, we had four to five first-year players starting on a consistent basis. When you graduate more than half of your starting lineup, you’re going to have younger players stepping in immediately. Cortland’s starting lineup was made up mostly of juniors and seniors and it had a very David vs. Goliath feel to it.

Q. The team had a couple of rough stretches during the season, but seemed to be pretty resilient.

A. Going into the season, we knew we had to take a significantly different approach than we had the year before. After graduating eight seniors, it was important to focus on our growth throughout the season and less on the results. We wanted to measure our success on our improvement after each practice and game and not make it about the wins and losses. It was a message we wanted to get the team on board with right from the beginning. Doing so allowed us to draw on the positives and keep the spirits of the team high, despite experiencing those tough losses to some real quality teams along the way.

Q. It’s easy to think that the regular-season loss to Cortland was a bad memory for your players.

A. We started out strong and were actually controlling the game so when they were able to break through with their first goal, it was very deflating, mentally. From there, we were never able to regain any of that control. Losing 6-0 turned out to be a real pivotal point in the season for us. We were forced to take a hard look at ourselves and re-focus our energy on the things we did well. Instead of crumbling, the team used it as fuel going into the last third of the season.

Q. Was it hard to convince the players they had a legitimate shot at upsetting Cortland?

A. From a coaching standpoint, it wasn’t difficult getting them to believe they were a completely different team this time around—they could feel and sense it for themselves based on their performance in practices and games that had since followed (the team ended the regular season with three wins in its last four games— the only loss in double overtime). The credit for this goes to the team, specifically our captains and upperclassman. They used that confidence to instill a sense of belief amongst the rest of the team that was contagious. I don’t think I’ve ever coached a team that played with so much drive and determination. It was humbling to be a part of.

Q. What kind of strategic and tactical adjustments did you make for the rematch?

A. Between myself and my assistants, we had broken that game film down and left no stone unturned. Despite pages of notes, we knew we wanted to approach the team with just three areas of focus. With emotions so high, I felt an overwhelming scouting report was more apt to be counterproductive than helpful. We broke down their offensive corners and worked a lot with our defensive corner unit to adjust our areas of vulnerability. We adjusted the positions of our midfield and central players to cut off their inside/outside passing game which they relied on heavily against us. Last, we made adjustments to our transition game and left-side attack that allowed us to be much more effective in advancing the ball against them.

Q. You mentioned your assistant coaches, Meg Reitz and Ashok Sekar. What roles did they play?

A. Meg and Ashok were very instrumental in helping to review the film and formulate a new game plan. Meg has a great ability to break down the other teams’ players and tendencies and incorporate that information into our practices. Ashok offers unique and creative strategies based on his international playing experiences. They both bring different perspectives to the table, which proved not only valuable going into this particular game, but also throughout the season.

Q. Did you draw on any similar games you’ve been a part of either as a coach or player?

A. One of the things I’ve learned as a coach is that the dangerous teams aren’t necessarily always those with the most skill and best record. I have a great deal of respect for the dark horse teams—they may not have the physical edge but they certainly have the mental one. I’ve always gone into those games with my team emphasizing the importance of dominating early and taking control of the game.

Q. The game was close all the way. You scored just five minutes in, but it was 1-0 for the next 55 minutes of play. Another Geneseo goal appeared to give you some breathing room, but Cortland scored late to cut the lead to one. Those last four minutes had to feel like they were took forever.

A. And Cortland hit the post with a shot just a few minutes into the game and giving up an early goal would have hurt us mentally. But we got on the scoreboard not long after that, and the longer you give an underdog the chance to stay in the game, the more confident they become. That’s what happened with us. In the huddle and during timeouts we began reminding the players of that mental edge they had and definitely used that as a point of emphasis as the game wore on.

Q. The victory earned a spot in the SUNYAC championship game against New Paltz, another tough matchup.

A. As coaches, we knew the biggest challenge going into the championship game against New Paltz was going to be the mental state of the players, coming off one of the most emotional wins they’ve ever been a part of. We needed to put the Cortland game in the past and re-focus but the heightened emotions surrounding that upset lingered within the team. In the end, it proved to be a mental obstacle we just weren’t able to overcome despite our efforts. We certainly didn’t play poorly in the conference championship game but just weren’t able to carry that same level of emotional intensity over.

Q. How will you use the win in the future?

A. We’ll definitely look to build off this game in terms of confidence moving forward. My biggest hope is that it will continue to serve as a reminder to the players to always believe in themselves, no matter how improbable the circumstances may seem—throughout the rest of their playing careers and long after they’ve left Geneseo.