Comeback kids look to win MAC

Matt Gottfried

The “Comeback Kids.”

That’s the name Kent State field hockey coach Kerry DeVries gave to her resurgent team, which overcame a 0-11 start to win an unprecedented eight straight conference games and close out the regular season with a Mid-American Conference title.

By sealing their third consecutive conference championship, the Flashes (8-12, 8-2 MAC) have earned a first round bye in the MAC tournament set to begin tomorrow in Mount Pleasant, Mich. Though they enter as the favorites to win the tournament, don’t expect the Flashes to take the opportunity for granted.

“This team is very unique compared to any other team I’ve coached here at Kent before,” DeVries said. “They are the ‘Comeback Kids.’ Because of all the struggles that we faced at the beginning of the season, they have had to learn a lot more about each other than any team I’ve had in the past.

“They love to win and they treasure every win they get,” DeVries continued. “Every other team that I have brought to the tournament was used to winning, but this team has learned to treasure every win after that rough start. I would really love the opportunity to bring this really young and excited team to the NCAA tournament to see what they can do.”

What they have done in the past nine games is outscore their opposition 24-14 for eight wins, including the last six. They’ve gone from being at the bottom of the conference to holding a two-game lead. They’ve gone from being the underdogs to becoming the favorites.

Those 11 losses at the beginning of the season went a long way toward shaping the team they are now.

“We have so many freshmen on this team who really didn’t know what to expect coming in here,” senior forward Carrie Rupp said. “If we would have won all those games early on, this team would have been a lot different. All those freshmen learned how hard you have to work to win at this level.

“Those losses made everyone work that much harder, because we all wanted to win so bad,” Rupp explained. “It helped the younger players to reach their potential, something they may not have been able to do had they started their careers with the success this program has had in the past. This season has just been unbelievable.”

Though their opponent has yet to be decided, the Flashes will take on either Missouri State (4-14, 3-7 MAC) or Central Michigan (8-11, 5-5 MAC) at noon on Friday. The contest between those two conference foes will take place tomorrow, as will the matchup between Miami and Ball State.

The winner of that game will play Ohio (8-11, 6-4 MAC), who also received a first-round bye.

“Both opponents have different strengths and weaknesses,” DeVries said. “They both have goalies who stay up and pursue rather than dive all over the place. They have the tendency to come a long way out of the box, so that’s what we have been simulating in practice.”

During the regular season, the Flashes swept Central Michigan in their two meetings, 5-3 and 2-1. Against Missouri State, they dropped the first contest in double overtime 1-0, but rebounded with a 4-2 victory in their second clash. Regardless of what team they face, beating a team three times in one season is never easy to do.

“Playing in the MAC, you always have to know your opponents well,” DeVries said. “You have to be able to show them a little something different every game in order to keep them on their toes.”

With a win on Friday, Kent State would move on to the championship game on Saturday. That contest is set to begin at 2 p.m., with the winner earning a bid to a play-in game for the NCAA tournament. The play-in game will be held Nov. 8 against a member of the American East Conference at a location still to be determined.

As the Flashes attempt to advance in the MAC tournament and move on to the NCAA tourney, they’re remembering what it took to get to this point and are using that as motivation.

“When we got our first win of the season against Central Michigan, we all broke down crying,” Rupp said. “There was such a big burden lifted off our shoulders and we were so happy. It felt like we won the MAC championship right there in that little game.

“If winning had come easy for us, we never would have appreciated the little things that happened throughout those tough times. We know how good it feels to win, as well as how bad it felt to lose. We don’t want to experience that again.”

Contact field hockey reporter Matt Gottfried at [email protected].