For the Johns Hopkins field hockey team, the 2018 season didn't end quite the way it had hoped. That didn't make it any less memorable.
The most successful season in program history concluded Nov. 17 in the NCAA Division III semifinals with a 3-1 loss to fourth-ranked Tufts in Manheim, Pa. Hopkins finished the year 19-3, setting the program record for most victories in a season, posting the program's highest winning percentage (.826) and advancing to the Final Four for the first time.
"It was a great game," head coach Jane Wells said after the season-ending loss. "Unfortunately it was decided by a few little mistakes. At the end of the day, I'm really proud of our team and the effort that we put in today."
Despite the loss, the Blue Jays completed a remarkable turnaround under their second-year coach. Wells inherited a team in January 2017 that had gone 7-10 the previous fall and failed to qualify for the Centennial Conference Tournament for two straight seasons.
She immediately began a quest to get to know her players and change the culture. The results were evident almost immediately, as Hopkins posted a 15-2 regular-season record and tied for the regular-season conference title in her initial campaign. This year, the Blue Jays beat No. 18 Ursinus and No. 10 Franklin & Marshall in Centennial Conference Tournament to capture their first conference championship since 2003.
"She came in and talked about having a championship culture and the dynamic and work it takes to become a championship team," said senior midfielder Grace Hillman, a two-time conference Defensive Player of the Year and the Most Valuable Player of the Centennial Conference Tournament. "That was really big for us. I think we all knew what we had to do and the work we needed to put in, but she really provided a good perspective of what she expected from us and what we had to do to meet those expectations."
After receiving a bye in the first round of this year's NCAA Tournament, Hopkins knocked off Fairleigh Dickinson-Florham, 4-0, in the second round and then upset undefeated and top-ranked Messiah, 3-2, on Hillman's double-overtime goal in the quarterfinals.
It was the ninth all-time NCAA Tournament appearance for the Blue Jays, who equaled their previous tournament win total in the first two games. It also was their first victory against Messiah and the first time they had beaten the nation's top team.
"It was really incredible to beat them and honestly still felt unreal a few days later," junior midfielder Katie McErlean, a first-team all-conference pick, said of the Messiah victory. "We were so happy to have proved to ourselves that we were capable and knew that with the work we put in we had earned it. It was an incredible feeling with all the work we had done to come that far."
After such a big turnaround her first year -- and with five starters lost to graduation -- Wells knew she needed to hit the recruiting trail hard if she hoped to at least equal that performance in her second year. More importantly, she understood her recruiting efforts could provide the type of depth Hopkins needed to be a national contender on a yearly basis.
Wells and her upperclassmen pointed to the freshman class adapting quickly to the level of play and creating a more competitive practice environment. Five freshmen and one transfer proved to be key contributors to the team's success and should allow the Blue Jays to pick up where they left off next fall.
Forward Izzy Thompson led the team with 13 goals and 27 points, both Hopkins freshmen records. Midfielder Abby Birk ranked third on the team in goals (eight), second in assists (six) and third in points (22) en route to second-team All-Conference honors.
Another freshman, midfielder Maddie Brown-Scherer, finished fifth on the team in scoring with 13 points on four goals and five assists. Sophomore forward Michaela Corvi transferred in from Colgate, starting 17 games and finishing third on the team in goals (eight) and points (22).
On the defensive end, freshmen Sarah Matyas and Avery Seward combined to make 40 starts for the nation's 12th-ranked defensive unit (0.83 goals-against average).
"One of the biggest keys to our success was being able to regularly start five freshmen from our first recruiting class," Wells said. "They brought a lot of athleticism to the program, made our practices more competitive and gave us a lot of depth. I love coaching a big team, because it makes things more competitive with players pushing each other every day for playing time and to define their roles."
Hillman also raved about the team's newcomers and the added depth they provided.
"One of the great things about our team was the depth we had on the bench," she said. "The freshmen were great right from the beginning, and we were always able to have fresh legs in the game."
Even though the final outcome wasn't what Wells and her group had hoped for, upon reflection there is a realization among team members that the Blue Jays achieved -- and exceeded -- their initial goals and set a standard to which future teams will aspire.
"What an incredible journey it has been," Wells said. "I'm so proud of all the players on this team. We were really successful last year, and with all the work the players put in, were a deserving team this year.
"With the freshmen we brought in this year and an incoming class that I am really excited about for next year, we are way more prepared to compete at this level and in a better place to push each other to create the right atmosphere in practice. As I look back, I feel like this is the beginning of a longstanding tradition where we will be able to compete with anyone in the country."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics