BY Jim Fenton
EASTON — For the fifth time in program history, the Stonehill College field hockey team has reached the NCAA Division 2 tournament.
The Skyhawks (18-3, ranked fifth in the nation) are the No. 2 seed in the three-team North Region and will host third-seeded Merrimack College on Saturday at noon at W.B. Mason Stadium.
A win will send Stonehill to Virginia Beach, Va., for a national semifinal-round game against top-seeded LIU Post (20-0, ranked third in the country) on Nov. 22.
"We're excited to be home,'' said Skyhawks coach Shelly Morris, whose team is 2-1 against Merrimack this season. "Our goal is to get to Virginia, and no question we have the ability to do it.''
Stonehill opened the season with 16 consecutive wins before losing to Merrimack, 1-0, on Oct. 29.
The Skyhawks have recorded 3-1 and 3-2 wins over the Warriors (13-5), the last one coming in the semifinal round of the Northeast-10 Conference tournament last Friday.
"They're tough,'' said Morris. "They're physical. They play hard. We got up on them (3-0 in the first half) in the last game and they didn't let up at all.
"It's good in a way to play a team this many times because you know them, but it does get old a little bit. But this happens every year.''
Stonehill, which was also in the NCAAs in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010, was 9-10 a year ago and put the experience that was gained to good use.
"I knew we'd be good, but if you asked me if we'd be 18-3 at this point, I'd have said it would be challenging,'' said Morris. 'I knew we had good talent. The chemistry has just been very good and they're playing as a team.''
Leading the way is sophomore Erika Kelly, who is first in the nation with 37 goals (which is an NE-10 record) and a program-record 76 points in 20 games after getting eight goals and two assists as a freshman.
Kelly needs four goals to break the national Div 2 record set in 2008 by Jamie Vanartsdalen of Bloomsburg.
"She's really talented,'' said Morris. "She's done a great job for a sophomore. She's been put in pressure situations and has just been tough. She just has a great natural ability and a game sense, an awareness.''
The Stonehill seniors went to the national Final Four when they were freshmen, and now they are trying to go out the same way.
"It'd be great to give them that bookend this year,'' said Morris. "I'd love to get them that opportunity to close out their careers that way.''