Goalie Emily Neilson had a visceral thought last Sunday as she celebrated in utter joy with her teammates.

The Bowdoin field hockey team had just won its third NCAA Division III championship in four years, beating Messiah College in penalty strokes.

“It really was the best moment of my life,” said Neilson. “I joke with my family about all the other milestones in life that are supposed to be the best moments, getting married, having kids. They will all come in second and third to Sunday.”

Neilson and her 19 teammates worked their way through a magical 20-1 season.

The Polar Bears amassed a 13-0 record before losing Oct. 29 in the regular-season finale to Tufts, another New England Small College Athletic Conference power.

From there the Polar Bears won three straight, including the NESCAC championship game against Tufts, to reach the NCAA tournament.

With victories against Lebanon Valley, 2-1 in overtime, then Skidmore, 5-0, they found themselves on the threshold of another national title against Messiah.

The game was scoreless through regulation, then overtime. It would come down to penalty strokes.

“To be honest, going in I had a lot of confidence,” said Bowdoin Coach Nicky Pearson. “Our goalkeeper had had a wonderful game. I felt very confident in her. And we’ve had several strokes. The players practice them every week.”

The first two players from each team failed to score.

In the third round, Emily French of Bowdoin snapped a shot into the lower left corner. Messiah also converted on its next shot.

Kassey Matoin of Sanford then converted to give Bowdoin a 2-1 edge. Messiah missed on its fourth attempt, setting the stage for the winner by McKenna Teague.

Neilson attributes two things to the program’s success: Pearson, and the idea that each player is part of something bigger.

“Coach Pearson believes in every player,” said Neilson. “She challenges every player to grow and make a difference, from the starters to the freshmen.

“Everyone genuinely feels they’re on the team for a reason.”

Neilson looked to the sidelines at the Final Four and saw several alums cheering her team.

“The other thing that is so special is that it’s almost bigger than the team. There’s so much history,” said Neilson. “It just really feels like it’s something special. Everyone who is tied to it is tied passionately. It’s a family, is the best way I can describe it.”

Agreed, said Pearson.

“The players take an awful lot of pride in representing the team,” said Pearson. “The captains do a wonderful job of articulating to the younger players what the expectations are, what our identity is as a team.

“The players feel that this special program is in their hands for just four years. They feel a responsibility to the alumni and to people who have been associated with the program to represent themselves and the team with the utmost integrity and sportsmanship. They take that responsibility seriously.”

Athletic Director Jeff Ward sees Pearson as a gifted coach. It’s no coincidence, he said, her teams have won three of the last four national titles.

“They certainly believe in her. They rise to the bar she sets for them,” said Ward. “And it’s really not a product of her getting the best recruits. She develops kids. They get better. They get better every year.”

And, said Ward, that soft demeanor and British accent mask a strong coach with serious expectations.

“She is pretty uncompromising. Don’t let the British accent fool you,” he said. “There’s a great strength of will there.”

Players were met by some 200 fans when their bus pulled into campus just before midnight after the final. A more formal congratulatory ceremony is in the works.

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

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