Athletics

Milestone Year

By Bill Smith, April 21, 2022

Field Hockey team makes history on journey to National Championship Game

As the Liberty University Field Hockey team made its way past cheering fans, parents, and alumni on the path to Phyllis Ocker Field Hockey Field on Nov. 21, the energy was palpable. Liberty was playing for a national championship that day, its first appearance in a national title game in any sport at the Division I level.

That damp and dreary Sunday in late November in Ann Arbor, Mich., was full of optimism about what was to come on that field hockey pitch in less than two hours. But to fully grasp the magnitude of this day, one had to stop and reflect on the journey up to this point.

Liberty entered the national championship game with a 20-2 overall record and the nation’s longest winning streak at 17 games. The Lady Flames had captured their first-ever BIG EAST Conference title just two weeks prior, downing UConn 1-0 on its home turf in Storrs, Conn.

The team celebrates its victory over ODU on Oct. 29 to earn the BIG EAST title. (By Andrew Snyder)

Making its first NCAA Field Hockey Championship appearance since 2014, Liberty accomplished another program first right off the bat, advancing to the Elite 8 with a 2-0 triumph over Saint Joseph’s at Rutgers’ Bauer Track/Field Hockey Complex. The Lady Flames then faced off against the nation’s No. 1 team and host Rutgers with a Final Four berth on the line. Liberty prevailed in thrilling fashion, winning 3-2 in a shootout to claim the first Final Four appearance for any team in school history.

The team departed Lynchburg on a Wednesday to a send-off parade full of students, Liberty’s Spirit of the Mountain Marching Band, the Liberty Cheerleading squad, staff members, and other fans. Upon arriving at its hotel in Ann Arbor, the team entered a lobby and meeting room decorated in Liberty and Final Four signage and balloons.

The team receives a big sendoff as they leave campus on Nov. 17 en route to the Final Four. (By Ross Kohl)

The first-class treatment at the Final Four moved into Thursday. The team practiced in the morning then took part in a stadium experience at “The Big House” (Michigan Stadium), making a special tunnel entrance to the field with the Liberty fight song playing. The Liberty Field Hockey intro video and other welcome videos were played on the video board. The team then made its way up to the stadium’s club suite level for a special luncheon where sophomore Reagan Underwood was presented the Elite 90 Award for field hockey, given to the student-athlete with the top GPA at the 2021 NCAA Division I Field Hockey Championship.

Friday’s Final Four game pitted Liberty against eight-time national champion Maryland, which was making its 20th Final Four appearance. Liberty jumped out to a 2-0 lead behind goals from Jill Bolton and Charlotte Vaanhold, but Maryland scored a goal in the closing seconds of the third quarter and then scored the equalizer with 4:54 to play to force overtime.

Senior Charlotte Vaanhold (right) in the Final Four game at the University of Michigan on Nov. 19. (By Ross Kohl)

The two teams had their chances in overtime, but to no avail until the 79th minute of the second overtime. Underwood sent a pass up the right side to Bolton, who dribbled into the circle and passed over to Vaanhold. Vaanhold’s one-time shot found the top of the cage, and a euphoric celebration ensued on the field following the 3-2 win over the Terrapins. The jubilee spilled over to in front of the stands, with players celebrating with their families, friends, and fans.

Vaanhold’s goal, which was featured on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays listing, sent Liberty to Sunday’s national championship game.

The Lady Flames celebrate after defeating Maryland 3-2 in double overtime to advance to the NCAA Division I Field Hockey National Championship game. (By Ross Kohl)

 

“The field hockey team reaching the national championship should inspire every faculty and staff member in each program, department, and college at Liberty to believe that we can be best in class.”

— Ian McCaw, Liberty Director of Athletics

 

The success up to this point, however, was birthed out of a greater calling and purpose for this group of coaches and student-athletes. After narrowly missing out on an NCAA Tournament berth during the Spring 2021 season, the Liberty Field Hockey coaching staff brought a new and unique theme into the Fall 2021 season for its team: “Open Hands.”

“Open Hands was born out of not winning the BIG EAST or making the NCAA Tournament for the fifth season in a row. At the beginning of the preseason in 2021, we had our first team meeting in the same room where, the year before, we had received the heartbreaking news that we were not selected to play in the postseason,” said Liberty Field Hockey Head Coach Nikki Parsley-Blocker. “We really felt the Lord leading us to fully surrender to His plan and timing, even if that meant not getting the results we were striving toward. We knew He was calling us to give 100 percent but to keep our hands open to receive His will at just the right time.”

The Lady Flames pray before they hit the field for the national championship game on Nov. 21. (By Ross Kohl)

There was plenty of support from Flames Nation on championship Sunday in Ann Arbor, with Liberty Field Hockey alumni, parents, fans, and other Liberty coaching staffs in attendance. Liberty Field Hockey program founders Jodi Murphy (former head coach), Tilly Brampton (former associate head coach), and Jacki Bolt (former assistant coach) were in the stands to cheer on the team.

Fans cheer on the Lady Flames at the national championship game at the University of Michigan on Nov. 21. (By Ross Kohl)

Liberty’s championship game opponent, Northwestern, was also in search of its first field hockey national title in school history and a very familiar foe for the Lady Flames. Liberty hosted Northwestern earlier in the season in Lynchburg (Sept. 7), with the Wildcats scoring a goal in the final two minutes to prevail 4-3 and give Liberty one of only two losses on the year.

Even more notably, Parsley-Blocker was up against her alma mater; she played for Wildcats Head Coach Tracey Fuchs from 2010-13, earning second team All-American honors as a senior. Sunday’s championship game was the first time in NCAA Division I Field Hockey Championship history that a former player competed against her former head coach in the title game. At 29 years old, Parsley-Blocker became the youngest head coach to lead a team in an NCAA Division I Field Hockey Championship game.

Lady Flames Head Coach Nikki Parsley-Blocker, 29, is the youngest coach to take a team to the field hockey national championship game at the NCAA Division I level. (By Ellie Richardson)

A back-and-forth first half saw the Flames and Wildcats with scoring chances that came up empty, sending the two squads into the locker room scoreless. Northwestern broke through for two goals in the third period and went on to top Liberty 2-0 for the national title.

“This team is special,” said Bolton after the game. “I will remember this season for the rest of my life. I would have loved to have won a national championship, but making it to the national championship is something I never would have imagined and will be a forever memory for me.”

“The field hockey team reaching the national championship should inspire every faculty and staff member in each program, department, and college at Liberty to believe that we can be best in class,” said Liberty Director of Athletics Ian McCaw. “The Liberty brand is soaring nationally, and it is not only football and basketball driving it but also the excellence of all of our programs. Having field hockey compete for the NCAA Championship on national television did wonders for the program and the profile of the athletics department and university.”

The very next day after the national title game, the accolades started to roll in. A program-record six Liberty players were named to the NFHCA All-South Region team. First team honorees included Bolton, Daniella Rhodes, Bethany Dykema, and Azul Iritxity Irigoyen. Jodie Conolly and Lizzie Hamlett earned spots on the all-region second team. A week later, Bolton became the program’s first-ever NFHCA South Region Player of the Year.

In December, Liberty received NFHCA South Region Coaching Staff of the Year distinction. Bolton (first team), Iritxity Irigoyen (first team), and Rhodes (second team) were selected as NFHCA All-Americans, giving the Flames three All-Americans in a season for the first time ever.

Bolton was named the 2021 NFHCA Division I National Player of the Year — the first Liberty student-athlete at the Division I level to earn the top honor. She also received the 2022 Honda Sport Award for field hockey, presented annually by the Collegiate Women Sports Awards (CWSA) for the past 46 years to the top female in 12 NCAA sanctioned sports. The award signifies “the best of the best in college athletics.” Bolton is now a finalist for the Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year and the prestigious 2022 Honda Cup, which will be presented on a telecast on CBS Sports Network, June 27 at 9 p.m. EST.

Senior Jill Bolton, shown here playing in the national championship game, was named the 2021 National Field Hockey Coaches Association (NFHCA) Division I National Player of the Year, making her the first Liberty student-athlete at the NCAA Division I level to be voted a national player of the year.

In late January, the Liberty Field Hockey team was honored by the Lynchburg City Council at City Hall for its record-breaking season.

Liberty’s run to the national championship game during the Fall 2021 season won’t be forgotten.

“The coaches, staff, and student-athletes are closely bonded through their faith in Christ and love of field hockey,” McCaw stated. “It is gratifying to witness how our field hockey coaches and student-athletes embody Liberty’s mission of Training Champions for Christ.”

 

In 1975, basketball became the first women’s athletic program. The first field hockey team was established in 2011. Today, Liberty’s female student-athletes compete in 10 NCAA sports and 18 Club Sports programs.

 

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