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Field hockey coach reflects on historic season, stands on the ‘unshakable’ love of God

The Lady Flames celebrate their arrival at Ann Arbor, Mich., for the NCAA Division I Field Hockey Final Four (Photos by Ross Kohl)

Following her team’s 2-0 loss in Sunday’s NCAA Division I Field Hockey National Championship final against No. 7 Northwestern in Ann Arbor, Mich., Liberty University Field Hockey Head Coach Nikki Parsley-Blocker reflected on the Lady Flames’ amazing run this season.

“I’m just so incredibly proud of the group’s efforts,” said Parsley-Blocker, who at 29 became the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I field hockey history to coach in a championship game. “I just think we had a lot of good chances early, and unfortunately we didn’t put one away early. And you’ve got to take your hat off and give credit where credit’s due. (The Wildcats) were absolutely outstanding defensively.”

The matchup marked the first time that a Liberty NCAA Division I Athletics team played in a national championship contest, a feat that Parsley-Blocker largely attributes to her “super seniors” (student-athletes who chose to play an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic) who worked tirelessly over the years to lead the Lady Flames (20-3) to their finest season in program history.

Nikki Parsley-Blocker, at 29, became the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I field hockey history to coach in a championship game.

“I don’t think it’s really sunk in just how much we did do,” Parsley-Blocker said through tears after Sunday’s game. “I know we didn’t win the National Championship, but just to make it here is incredible. And certainly we want to win, we don’t just want to get here, but you have to get here sometimes before you win it. So I hope, Lord willing, we’re back, but I’m just going to always remember this was the first time we were here with a really special group of student athletes.”

After a scoreless first half, No. 7-ranked Northwestern (17-5) scored two third-quarter goals on its way to victory over the No. 9 Lady Flames for the Wildcats’ first national title in program history. Sunday’s matchup was the first time since 1987 that the title game pitted two field hockey teams that had never previously played in a final.

Liberty, which entered the game as the nation’s top offense averaging better than 3.5 goals per game, was shut out for the first time since Oct. 28, 2019, at then-No. 6 Virginia. (The Lady Flames lost their regular-season game against Northwestern, 4-3, on Sept. 7 in Lynchburg, Va.) The national championship final ended a 17-game winning streak, the longest of any team in the country.

Lady Flames junior Bethany Dykema (right) embraces a teammate following Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Northwestern.

Liberty’s Charlotte Vaanhold, Jill Bolton, and Azul Iritxity Irigoyen earned All-Tournament team recognition for their efforts over the past two weekends. Vaanhold scored two goals, including the game winner against No. 5 Maryland in Friday’s semifinals. Bolton recorded the first goal in the win over the Terrapins while Iritxity Irigoyen made 16 saves in the two Final Four games.

“I will remember this season for the rest of my life, this 2021 (season) and my career in this game,” Bolton said. “I would have loved to have won a national championship but making it to the National Championship is something that I would have never imagined and just will be a forever memory for me.”

Sunday’s 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. Parsley-Blocker played for Wildcats Head Coach Tracey Fuchs from 2010-13 and was a second team All-America honoree as a senior and a four-time All-West region selection.

As the dust settles and the Lady Flames enter the offseason, Parsley-Blocker hopes that her team, coaching staff, and Flames fans remember what is true in victory or defeat.

Senior Alexis Paone was one of many Lady Flames seniors to pave the way for the first NCAA National Championship appearance in school history.

“I think people should take away that God is still good,” she said. “Our standing is still the same; His love for every single person on this Earth is still the same. We don’t have to do anything to earn that.”

“At the end of the day, life’s about something bigger than sport,” she added. “And it would have been absolutely outstanding had we won today … but (I) just try to stand on what’s unshakable, whether we win or whether we lose.”