Gina Lucido has been waiting for one major accomplishment during her 19-year career as a field hockey coach: a conference championship.
Lucido won three conference titles as a player at Ball State University, but hasn't won one as a coach. During her first year at Richmond in 2007, the team lost in the semifinals. Last year, it lost in the finals, and now this year's seniors are the only current players who won one of the five-straight Atlantic 10 titles Richmond earned between 2001 and 2006.
"It's an event that changes the whole mindset of the team," senior forward Sarah Blythe-Wood said of the conference title. "As you go forward into the future and next year's season, you know exactly what you have to do, and you know exactly what you're missing out on if you're not succeeding."
The Spiders, 11-8 overall and 5-1 in conference, are the No. 1 seed in the A-10 tournament. During the semifinal round, they will play the host, No. 4 University of Massachusetts, at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow. The second game at 3 p.m. is a match-up of No. 2 St. Joseph's University and No. 3 Temple University. The winners of each game will compete during the championship at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
"I really like being the team that plays first," Lucido said. "If you play second, you're hanging around. ... We've just got to get after it."
The tournament teams were Richmond's three final regular-season opponents. The Spiders beat UMass 1-0 and St. Joseph's 4-1, but lost to Temple 4-2. It was the first time Richmond had beaten UMass since 2006 and the first time Temple had ever beaten Richmond.
"It makes you a little more nervous," senior defender Jess Weidner said about the loss to Temple. "But it might have been the loss that we needed to say, 'Hey, we're not invincible here in the A-10.'"
Blythe-Wood said she thought many people would expect Richmond to lose tomorrow, because UMass is the two-time defending A-10 champion and has been consistently ranked in the Top 20 this season.
Weidner said the team was motivated because UMass had beaten Richmond during the past two conference tournaments.
"We want to send them home," she said. "To knock out the reigning champs right away, that's a big deal. I think for the past 10 years it's either been UMass or Richmond that wins [the A-10 title]. ... We want it to be us."
Although Massachusetts has a home-field advantage, Blythe-Wood and Weidner said being the road team could help the Spiders. When the team travels, it is less distracted and is always in game mode, Blythe-Wood said.
Weidner said: "They had quite a bit of fans at their last game and they were quite obnoxious, but I was able to zone them out. ... I think it's been helpful at least to experience the cold, especially playing up there recently."
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Blythe-Wood and Weidner both said the players had sacrificed more this season, which had resulted in a more united team.
"It's just using your free time wisely and we've just been really focused on our goal," Weidner said. "Even though sometimes people might go: 'Why? Why does it have to be so hard?' ... It's for the love of the game. It's for the love of your teammates."
To succeed this weekend, the team will have to show its defensive strength, Lucido said. Weidner said she was proud of the team's defense this season. The team began conference play with four-straight shutouts.
"Our defense used to be one of the weakest points," Weidner said. "It's really hard to get noticed, but when we start having these shutouts ... it's cool for us to finally get some credit out there."
Blythe-Wood said the team worked hard to not make any defensive errors.
"We started to put demands on each game. 'We're not going to give up more than this many corners. We're not going to allow this many shots'" she said. "That has allowed us to be as dominant as we have been in the regular season."
On offense, Blythe-Wood is the leading scorer in the A-10 with 19 goals. She and Lucido credited Ryan Elliott, one of the assistant coaches, for coming up with the offensive system the team's forwards had implemented.
"His value is unmatched in what he's been able to teach and bring to the attack," Lucido said. "We're seeing the fruits of all that labor."
Blythe-Wood said winning the regular-season conference title had been an important milestone for the program. But in order to win the tournament title, she said the seniors in particular had to view Friday as their last game. Lucido said the team should focus only on Massachusetts and couldn't think about a rematch against St. Joseph's or Temple.
"It is so much [about] who's got the mentality and who has that passion that they're not willing to step off of that field until they have literally exhausted their last drop of sweat, the last drop of energy and passion in their heart," Lucido said. "If we do that, we'll win the conference trophy."
Lucido, Blythe-Wood and Weidner said the tournament was the culmination of what they'd been working toward all season. Winning the A-10 trophy would prove the importance of their sacrifices.
"I don't want it for me," Lucido said. "I want them to just have that satisfaction of what it means to be an honest player and be dedicated your entire season and then to reap that reward. I probably will be incredibly emotional. It would be like a life-making moment for me. I just pray that this could be the year that the girls experience that."
Contact staff writer Barrett Neale at email@example.com
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