The Rider field hockey team is on a magical ride, one that you would think only comes along about once every decade. But over the past 10 seasons, the Broncs have been a fixture in the Northeast Conference playoffs, and have even reached its title game in all but one.

Even by those lofty standards, however, the 2009 edition of Rider field hockey has a chance to top them all. The top-seeded Broncs, who claimed the Northeast Conference (NEC) regular-season championship on November 1 with a double-overtime win over Lock Haven, will begin their quest for the NEC playoff championship against the fourth-seeded Monmouth Hawks on Friday, November 6, at Mercer County Community College at 11 a.m. The second semifinal game is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. between No. 2-seed Lock Haven and third-seeded Quinnipiac, with the winners facing off in the finals on Saturday at noon in the finals.

Rider is led by three-time NEC Player of the Week honoree Megan Pisani and sophomore Virginia Egusquiza of Getxo, Spain. Pisani, a sophomore from Plainsboro, N.J., tied the Rider single-season record with her 21st goal, which also happened to be the clincher against Lock Haven, while Egusquiza, the NEC Rookie of the Year in 2008, set a team-record with 17 assists this season. 

“We have a week to rest up and prepare for Monmouth,” head coach Lori Hussong said. “They played us really tough earlier this season and it was a battle. We will have to play our best in order to get the job done.”

Pisani and Egusquiza will be far from alone on the field. Team tri-captain and senior goalie Lyndsie Johnson of Gibbsboro, N.J., is currently third in the nation in goals-against average, and allowed just one goal (a 0.12 goals-against average) in NEC play this season.

And not to be outdone, members of Rider’s rookie class have received the NEC Rookie of the Week award seven times this season, including five times by Marlaine Schneider of Feasterville, Pa., who has six goals and six assists and leads all rookies in the conference with 18 points. 

Don’t be surprised if these Broncs engineer a perfect ending to a near-perfect 10th season. With a sterling 17-1 record, this may be Hussong’s best product ever.  Or it may be just another championship team in a long line of championship teams that have been produced by Rider University.

When Hussong and assistant coach Dan Hussong, Lori’s husband, took over the program after the 1999 season, the Broncs were coming off a dreary 4-14 season. Since that time, the Broncs have combined to win 134 of 198 games, including a 67-18 mark in Northeast Conference (NEC) play.

During the Hussongs’ inaugural season, in 2000, Rider sputtered to a 10-12 record, including a 5-5 mark in the conference. But what happened during that year’s playoffs launched the program toward its current success. The inspired Broncs captured the NEC championship and advanced to the NCAA play-in game at Boston University that season.

“We were excited to step up to the challenge of building a program that would be competitive and respected,” Lori Hussong said.

Just like that, the tradition of excellence had begun.

The 2001 season saw Rider tie Quinnipiac for the NEC regular-season title, and the following year, the Broncs hoisted a banner to celebrate another NEC Championship and NCAA play-in appearance, this time against Richmond, where the Broncs lost to the Spiders 1-0.

Overall, Rider has qualified for the NEC playoffs every year for the past 10 seasons, with the Broncs advancing to the NEC title game in eight of the Hussongs’ first nine years at the helm. With this year’s victory over Lock Haven it marks Rider’s fourth NEC regular-season title in the past nine seasons.

“I am so happy for the kids,” Lori Hussong said. “They put in hard work all season long and always believed in themselves. It feels good to see them get the reward that they deserve.”

The field hockey team’s success has not been limited to the playing field, however. For the past five semesters, the squad has recorded the highest team grade-point average of Rider’s 20 varsity teams.

“We stress academics and we want our players to graduate in four years,” said Lori Hussong. “All of the hard work that we stress on the field, we expect of the players in the classroom, and the team has certainly done that. It is an honor to have the top grade-point average of the Rider teams and we strive to do that each semester. Academics are why the players are here.”

In both and 2007 and 2008 the team earned national recognition from the National Field Hockey Coaches Association for its team grade-point average, and sophomore Natasha Tukeva of Easton, Pa., will be recognized as an Andrew J. Rider Scholar, one of the University’s top one percent of academic performers, at Founder’s Day on Saturday, November 7.

“You always want to keep improving the program and the first nine seasons were a great experience,” Lori Hussong said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to have had the opportunity to work with so many great young people. We try to prepare them for life first and give them a great experience both athletically, academically and socially so that they leave with the fondest of memories. Each and every member has given a little bit of themselves to our program.”

Dan Hussong echoed the sentiments of the head coach, and said that they are both proud of not only the current student-athletes, but the ones who have moved onto to professional fulfillment.

“We still have a close relationship with a lot of the alumni and it is special, seeing them become successful, both in the sport of field hockey and in their careers,’ he said. “We get the most out of the players we have and they have found a way to make those things happen. We have good ‘character’ players in the program with high potential and it’s a lot of fun when they reach that potential and graduate feeling proud of the program that they played for.”

The team’s 17 wins are the most for Rider since winning a program-record 18 in 2004. That the 2004 team will be returning to campus to receive the Outstanding Team Achievement Award on February 6 at Rider’s Athletics Hall of Fame ceremony.