Limerick woman Róisín Upton is in dreamland after bagging her second successive NCAA title with University of Connecticut.
The 20-year-old defender became just the second Irishwoman to both win and retain the top prize in American collegiate hockey, following in the footsteps of current Irish captain Megan Frazer, who had a hugely successful stint with the University of Maryland.
Having won their first title in 28 years last November, Upton’s UConn Huskies claimed back-to-back successes by edging Syracuse University, who featured Enniskerry native Emma Russell, 1-0 in the final at College Park, Maryland on Sunday. It followed their defeat of Albany on the same scoreline in the semi-final, highlighting the defensive solidity that Upton was a major factor in.
Almost 80 teams begin the American Division 1 season throughout various regional conferences, before being whittled down in the “sweet 16” and “final four” national tournaments. Upton’s Connecticut side won 20 and lost two games over an intense three-month period.
“We knew what it felt like and we just wanted it again,” said Upton, who rose to prominence with Crescent College Comprehensive and Catholic Institute HC and also played GAA with Mungret. “I said to someone recently that it is an addictive feeling. You just crave it.”
She told SFH: “This is a first for our university so I’m absolutely thrilled. Students get four years max. to play college sport, so to win two National Championships really is incredible. It’s still sinking in.
“I feel privileged because some fantastic hockey players have come through the college system and never had the opportunity to go to the final four last weekend, which in itself is a huge achievement. So to get to lift the trophy twice and this time as co-captain is very special indeed.”
Upton and Russell, who both moved to the USA in 2012, were team-mates on the Ireland U21 women’s team that gained promotion to the top tier of European hockey this summer and have won numerous individual awards in their three seasons Stateside.
Russell, a product of Holy Child Killiney and Old Alexandra HC (pictured below), saw some positives in defeat after her side had contested the final for the first time in their history: “It was a fantastic season – obviously not the finish we wanted, but it’s somewhere we’ve never been before, and it’s something we can definitely keep striving for.”
The duo are among 19 Irish players starring for American universities. Five were on the pitch at once when Liberty University – featuring Lurgan’s Barr sisters Bethany, Serena and Natalie – defeated Richmond Spiders, who had Limerick’s Rebecca Barry and Belfast’s Amy Cooke in situ, in a pre-sweet 16 clash. Longwood Lancers of Virginia have a strong link to Munster hockey, with Cork’s Kate Harvey and Tipperary’s Edel Nyland on their roster while assistant coach Mark Egner is also a Leeside native.
“Initially, I didn’t realize how much field hockey was played out here,” admitted Upton this week. “It really is a hotbed for the sport, especially on the East Coast from North Carolina to Maine and out west to Illinois and Wisconsin and further on again to California. Pennsylvania in particular produces some fantastic players. Three of the current USA team won the national championship three years ago with Princeton. The college system is vital to their national team because it identifies the cream of the crop for the USA squad.”
Upton is looking forward to a five-week break at home in Ireland over Christmas before returning to UConn for a gruelling pre-season, including indoor competitions, in spring. The team will decamp to Florida for Spring Break celebrations before ramping up their outdoor preparations for next season.
“2015 will be my final year of college hockey,” said Upton. “We have graduated four seniors who have left their mark this year and await some new recruits to strengthen the squad. Here’s hoping it will be another year to remember.”
*Pictures with thanks to Leslie Kline Davidson, Nine Klein and Sophie Bowden. You can read Roisin’s interview with SFH after her first NCAA success 12 months ago here (albeit with broken image links, apologies!)