Setting a team up for success is not an easy task, especially after coming off an undefeated national championship season.
Shippensburg University saw 12 of its field hockey seniors graduate in 2022, which left the Raiders with nine open spots in its starting formation. In spite of the inevitable challenges and the proverbial target on the athletes’ backs, head coach Tara Zollinger still managed to take the NCAA Division II reigning national champions all the way to the final game of the 2022 season.
“I think that when you’re defending national championships, there is this level of pressure because there is that target on your back and everyone does want to take down the reigning national champs,” Zollinger said. “That was a huge challenge for us.”
The ’21 Raiders scored 99 goals and averaged .61 goals scored against. Midway through the season, in their attempt to measure up to the prior season, the ’22 team found inspiration from one of its own.
Freshman Lilly Cantabene (Dallastown) and sophomore Savannah Silvestre (Perkiomen Valley) talked about how the late Amanda Strous impacted them and the game. Strous, who graduated from Ship in 2010, was murdered in North Carolina in 2016. She was 27 and six weeks away from getting married.
She wore No. 22.
“It was so cool to see a freshman, who had only been a part of our program for about five weeks…connect with Strous’s story,” Zollinger said. “And to see her inspired was really powerful for us coaches.”
Strous coached the Raiders’ assistant coaches Ally Mooney and Mikayla Cheney. They were proud of their athletes for making the connection to the number 22.
“My first season at Ship was one of the best seasons of my life,” Cantabene said. “Knowing that I was a part of such a strong and talented team was such an amazing feeling.”
Cantabene was in seventh grade when Strous was murdered at her apartment complex near Charlotte. She said she did not personally know her and she was never coached by her.
“But, every coach I’ve had in high school and college has taken life lessons from Amanda and made it a part of their coaching style,” she said.
She added: “her brother was one of my high school teachers, and every year in high school, we did an ‘Amanda Strous game’ against Cumberland Valley to keep her memory alive and to fundraise for the foundation in her name.”
The Raiders adopted the mantra “22 for 22,” Cantabene said.
“That was one of our main motivations for the season,” she said.
It became noticeable that the ’22 team wasn’t taking anything for granted, Zollinger said.
“Strous’s story is not only being told, but it’s inspiring, it’s still inspiring the next generation,” Zollinger said.
Once the team reflected, it helped to remove some of the burden that the upper classmen were feeling.
“We had our returners kind of struggling with that pressure, but then our first years came in and kind of gave their fresh energy,” Zollinger said.
The team’s mindset began to change. Zollinger said she knew, and wanted her athletes to believe, “every single person on our team can grow to become a national champion.”
Shippensburg holds high standards. There is always going to be the goal of winning a national championship. One of Zollinger’s favorite phrases is “if she can see it, she can be it.”
“It’s one thing for us to know that, but to get them to believe it and understand it, is a big challenge,” Zollinger said. “Having that really impactful first year class, just that fresh energy and fresh perspective really helped the entire team kind of grow their confidence in their belief that they could get to the national championship game.”
Zollinger stressed mindfulness and being present in the moment, which helped her team’s emotions during a national championship game.
Shippensburg finished with a 16-4 overall record and a 7-2 record in PSAC play. They fell to PSAC rival East Stroudsburg in the championship game 1-0 with 36 seconds left in regulation.
“I think that training and getting them to be in that growth mindset rather than that day-after-day mindset,” Zollinger said. “[It] helps them in those moments to be able to compartmentalize and separate the emotion from the task and be able to put their best foot forward and accomplish the task that’s right in front of them.”
The Raiders finished the season as finalists, but they gained so much more.
“Knowing every day was a gift and that we had the opportunity to be there, we weren’t forced to be there,” Zollinger said. “It was an opportunity for us, and it was a privilege for us to be representing our university, representing our alums and representing Strous.”
Those in the field hockey community honored her early departure using the phrase, “Fly High 22.”
“To me, she is one of my main influences on and off the field,” Cantabene said. “From what I heard from family, friends, and teammates of Amanda, she was always the person you wanted around you and on your team. She lit up a room when she walked in and was always there for you. She was an amazing player and person and someone I want to be like. We lost her too early but she continues to live on in Ship field hockey’s heart and in Dallastown field hockey’s heart.”
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