Liberty field hockey prepares to take on Syracuse in third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance
Late Sunday evening, the Liberty field hockey team awaited the announcement of who would advance into the NCAA 2023 Division I Field Hockey Championship tournament. After suffering a loss in the Big East Championship game, the Flames did not receive an automatic spot in the tournament and would need to be selected via an at-large bid to advance.
While eagerly viewing the Selection Show during their travels back to Lynchburg, Liberty learned it would be receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
“When the bracket game out, to be honest, I cried,” Flames Head Coach Nikki Parsley-Blocker said. “This is exactly where we need to be.”
For Liberty, this is the first time the field hockey program has received an at-large bid to the tournament. Senior midfielder Reagan Underwood called it “a testament to how much work and effort we’ve put in these past few years.”
Even though Liberty did not clinch the Big East Tournament Championship title, the team will still be extending its postseason run. Parsley-Blocker finds this to be evidence of her team’s effort throughout the whole season.
“I’m excited about what we’ve been able to put together for the course of the season and not just off of one weekend,” Parsley-Blocker said.
With an 18-2 record and beating numerous top teams throughout the regular season — including the No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels — Liberty set itself up for the postseason selection.
“When you’re at a place like Liberty, it’s not a Power Five (program),” Parsley-Blocker said. “It’s not the ACC or the Big Ten. You have to have everything go right.”
On top of the triumph over UNC, Liberty also managed to beat the University of Virginia and Harvard University in the regular season – all of which advanced to the NCAA tournament. According to Parsley-Blocker, those wins helped prove that Liberty deserves to be in the tournament.
“We left no doubt in people’s minds,” Parsley-Blocker said.
With many ACC teams joining Liberty in the tournament, its experience with the intensity of the competition has prepared the Flames for this moment.
“We know we can hold our own with those teams,” Underwood said. “We work hard, and that scares people. You can’t scout intangibles. You can’t scout a work ethic. You can’t scout what you can’t train.”
Liberty’s well-seasoned team has endured much adversity.
“Overall, this group has a lot of experience,” Parsley-Blocker said. “We’ve lost in a semifinal. We’ve been to a National Championship.”
However, what Parsley-Blocker has found vital to preparation for the postseason is this year’s close games. The coaching staff has reinforced the idea of exposure to the team from day one. Early in the season, Liberty won in shootouts against American University. The Flames have also experienced overtime against Indiana, Harvard, Duke and UNC.
“At the end of the day, when you go into the postseason, you aren’t going to win a game – Lord willing – 6-0,” Parsley-Blocker said. “That’s probably not gonna happen. It’s gonna be tight. That exposure we have faced from day one of this season.”
One of Liberty’s key graduate student defenders – Bethany Dykema – noted how an experienced defensive set up will aid Liberty’s success.
“We always talk about pressure is a privilege,” Dykema said. “That is how our defense approaches every single game. We know our defense is a huge reason why we’ve gotten to where we have. The back group we have is very seasoned.”
Transitioning into the NCAA tournament, Parsley Blocker finds that the playing ground is more leveled.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for more teams than there might have been in other years,” Parsley-Blocker said.
The reasoning for this feeling comes resulted from COVID-19 effects. Many teams retained seniors for a fifth year, which Parsley-Blocker feels is an “equalizer” against even the best teams in the tournament.
And as her group prepares to take on Syracuse in the first round of the tournament, Parsley-Blocker knows her team will showcase one of its unique qualities — resiliency.
“I don’t think there’s a more resilient group of girls I have ever coached,” Parsley-Blocker said.
Liberty field hockey will travel to Durham, NC to face Syracuse Nov. 10 in its first round of the NCAA tournament. If the Flames secure the win on Friday, they will advance to the Elite 8 to face their next opponent on Sunday, November 12.
Garman is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion