Entering her final season at Temple, back McKenna Burkhardt had one goal: play in the Big East Conference Championship game. In her four seasons on North Broad Street, the graduate student hadn’t gotten past the semifinals of the conference tournament.
Despite a promising season that earned Temple the third seed in the tournament, the Owls’ season ended in the semifinals yet again.
“The last three or four years, we have been knocking on the door of the championship,” Burkhardt said. “Win or lose, just being able to get to that championship would be great since it is on our home field this year.”
Temple Field Hockey fell in the Big East Tournament semifinal for the fourth straight year after its 2-0 loss to Old Dominion on Nov. 3.
Head coach Michelle Vittese’s goals for the team were not result-driven, she wanted to see her team work hard and grow as players.
“My expectations are always high for the group,” Vittese said. “I want us to play hard and play to the Temple Field Hockey principles and be ready to compete game after game.”
Temple hit its high point midway through the season when the Owls were on a four-game win streak and came in at No. 19 in the national rankings.
Things went downhill from there. The Owls lost four straight games, failing to score a single goal during the stretch. They sat near the bottom of the Big East standings with their conference tournament hopes looking bleak.
The Owls rebounded and won their final three conference games, highlighted by a thrilling overtime win against Quinnipiac that clinched a spot in the tournament.
Despite the late push, Temple finished the season with a record of 11-8, going 4-3 in conference play, two games worse than last season.
Temple’s main flaw in recent years has been its inability to beat top-tier opponents, and that remained evident this season. In five games against eventual NCAA tournament teams, the Owls went 0-5 and were outscored 14-1.
While their season was cut short, the Owls had multiple players take a step forward, including midfielders Tess Muller and Agustina Tucceri. But the player who made the biggest leap was junior back Alizé Maes, who led the team in assists and shots while finishing third in goals. Her performance earned her a spot on the all-conference second-team.
Along with her offensive successes, Maes anchored a backline that made Temple’s defense a strong point. The defense made it hard for opponents to generate offensive pressure, holding them to just above seven shots per game.
“A lot of the work that our backfield and midfield does go unnoticed,” said midfielder Devin Kinzel. “We do a ton of back-and-forth sprinting. The whole team effort feels amazing and to know the girl on your left has your back and the girl on your right has your back and we’re all working for each other.”
Throughout the season, goalkeeper Molly Frey proved to be one of the best goalies in the Big East, also earning second-team all-conference.
Frey ranked third in the conference and 21st in the nation in goals against average at just 1.30. She allowed only 25 goals all season and made 58 saves.
“I was able to carry over confidence from last season and fine-tune my skills and expand my toolbox in the spring,” Frey said. “Then I came into this year with more confidence and I was making better saves and saves that last year I would not have made.”
Despite a solid defense, Temple’s offense is what held them back from reaching their full potential.
The problem on offense was not generating scoring opportunities, as they averaged 10.4 shots per game, but capitalizing on those opportunities was an issue. The Owls scored just 23 goals all season, averaging hardly one per game, both numbers ranking in the bottom 10 in the entire country.
“I think our offensive struggles can be attributed to the teams we have played,” said Muller, who led the team with six goals. “They made it really difficult for us to convert on goals and corners.”
Muller was a bright spot on the struggling offense, displaying impressive ball control skills and generating many of the offensive opportunities. She earned a spot on the all-conference first-team for the second straight season, becoming the first Owl to do so since forward Amber Youtz in 2012 and 2013.
Reaching the NCAA Tournament is a difficult task, but if there was a year for Temple to break its nearly 40-year NCAA Tournament drought, it was this year.
The Owls are set to lose six graduating players this offseason, headlined by Frey, Burkhardt and midfielder Caitlyn Amsden. The trio spent the last five years donning the Cherry and White.
“Thinking about not playing field hockey ever again is really tough,” Burkhardt said. “I’ve been playing field hockey since middle school and I’ve been an athlete my whole life so the thought of giving that up is difficult to wrap my head around.”
The ending is a difficult pill to swallow. It isn’t what the Owls envisioned, but Vittese is still happy with the way they competed, she said.
“We put ourselves in a tricky situation where it was win-or-die against Villanova and Quinnipiac,” Vittese said. “I am so proud of how our group was able to survive and advance. They deserved a better ending. They are my highlights.”