Girls Rule

Women’s teams field a winning tradition

The players gathered on the field before the biggest game of their lives and stated their mission. Yes, they wanted to win for each other, because that is the foundation of every winning team. Yes, they wanted to win for their program, because no one wanted this historic women’s soccer season at Montclair State to end.

But they also wanted to win for…the field hockey team?

Their friends, classmates and fellow athletes, who were also chasing a national title of their own, were upset earlier that day by a team from Bowdoin --- which, coincidentally, was the same school that they would face in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“We approached the game as redemption for the field hockey team,” said Gina Politicastro, the star soccer goaltender for Montclair State. “We didn’t want to let them down.”

And they didn’t. The Red Hawks didn’t just beat Bowdoin that day --- they produced their most complete game of the season in a 7-0 victory. Those players from the field hockey team? They watched from the stands, the victory of their friends taking some of the sting off their own loss.

Photo of Janitza Aquino

Janitza Aquino goes in for a layup

“We try to support each other,” says field hockey coach Beth Gottung. “It was great to see them succeed.”

There is something special happening lately on campus. Women’s teams and athletes are flourishing at the school, and the participants say watching the success of their counterparts is just pushing them to do better themselves.

Maybe this stat sums up that success the best: The softball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse and field hockey teams went a combined 131-14-1 in their seasons that ended in the 2013 calendar year – a ridiculous .903 winning percentage.

Collage of multiple female athletes.

(clockwise): Pitcher Alex Hill is an All-American with 431 strikeouts; Brittany Cardone attacks in lacrosse; field hockey’s Emily Burd controls the ball; track’s Heather Gearity is a two-time NCAA Division III hurdles champion. 

A quick breakdown:

  • The women’s soccer team, just 7-8-2 when Coach Pat Naughter took over four years ago, not only won its first 17 games but only gave up two goals in its first 21 contests. It lost in the third round of the NCAA Tournament to the only other undefeated team in the country, Trinity University of Texas.
  • Hurdler Heather Gearity won her second straight national championship in the 400-meter outdoor event last spring, running a track-record 59.31 seconds. She is also a two-time Academic All-American.
  • The women’s basketball team won its first 29 games to start the 2012-13 season — with only one of those victories decided by single digits — before losing in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. In March 2014, the team won the NJAC conference title and was headed to nationals.
  • The field hockey team spent most of the season ranked No. 1 in the country, winning the NJAC championship before suffering a 1-0 loss to Bowdoin College in the NCAA Tournament. The team is 62-7 over the past three seasons.
  • The softball team went 46-5, winning 31 straight to start the season before finishing in fifth place in the national tournament. Going into the spring 2014 season, the team is ranked No. 2 nationally. Pitcher Alex Hill, an All-American, finished with a 0.68 ERA and 431 strikeouts in 48 appearances. With 754 wins, Coach Anita Kubicka is the winningest coach in school history.
  • The lacrosse team made their fourth straight appearance, and seventh overall, in the NCAA Championships.

Watching the success of their counterparts is pushing them to do better themselves.

It is, without question, the pinnacle for women’s sports at Montclair State — and, indeed, the school has a deep tradition of success.

Humble beginnings

Basketball forward Carol Blazejowski was there from the start. She arrived on campus in 1976 after playing a single season at Cranford High, back when Title IX --- a law that mandated equal opportunities for women on college campuses --- was just beginning to be embraced.

“The whole landscape was extremely different,” said Blazejowski, now the associate vice president for university advancement. “The reason I came was they had a decent state and regional basketball team and a good physical education program.”

Photo of Carol Blazejowski

 Carol Blazejowski led Montclair State to the Final Four her senior year

Blazejowski and her teammates were given uniforms, but not sneakers. They traveled mostly regionally, and almost exclusively on bus trips. When they did stay overnight, it was four to a room in a motel.

Still, Blazejowski, known then as “The Blaze,” turned Montclair State into a national power. Blazejowski averaged 38.6 points and 9.9 rebounds a game her senior season, before the three-point shot, and led the team to the Final Four. This was before schools were divided into divisions, and Montclair State had to play UCLA on its home court in the Final Four. But even then, with Blazejowski scoring 41, the team hung tough in an 85-77 loss.

Blazejowski went on to become a star for Team USA and, in 1994, was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The Montclair State program moved to the Division III level, where it would have its share of ups and downs.

Fast forward to 2007. When Karin Harvey took over as head coach that year, the 25 victories from that final Blazejowski-led team were still a school record. No one could foresee that, in Harvey’s sixth season, the program would not just surpass that mark, but set a school record of 29 wins in a row.

Photo of Jessica Kiniery

Soccer’s Jessica Kiniery goes for the ball

Photo of Shalette Brown

Shalette Brown goes up for a layup

Photo of Dana Egan

Dana Egan gets a hit

“Why not Us?”

The dream of an undefeated, national championship season ended for the Red Hawks in the Sweet 16 with an 83-70 loss to Christopher Newport University. Still, the success captured the attention of the campus and raised a question: Is it just a matter of time before a Montclair State women’s team wins it all?

Several have come tantalizingly close.

“If I didn’t think we could do it, I’d stop working here,” women’s soccer head coach Pat Naughter said. “Why not us?”

People are drawn to places where programs are doing well.

— Beth Gottung,
Field Hockey Coach 

Talk to the coaches and players about why so many women’s teams are achieving success at the same time, and several themes emerge. Most, like Naughter, start with the bigger picture.

“I think the biggest part of it is, look at the development of the University as a whole,” he said. “We added a ton of beautiful new residence hall rooms. The school is very attractive physically and academically. Recruiting has been very easy.”

Beth Gottung, who has a 187-57 record --- a .751 winning percentage --- in 12 seasons as field hockey head coach, agrees. She also adds that success tends to breed success for a collegiate program.

“People are drawn to places where programs are doing well,” said Gottung, who was recently named coach of the year in the South Atlantic region for a second straight season. “When they see success across the board, they look at it as a place where the success is sustainable.”

But the players themselves see something else at work. When they see one team have success at the highest level, it drives them to work hard. That members of those teams are their friends --- and, in some cases, their housemates --- makes it easy to relish in the success of others.

“It pushes us in a good way,” said Stephanie Barbulescu, a midfielder on the soccer team. “I think we see [their success] and think, ‘Wow, what an accomplishment.’ We want to do the same.”

Right now, several teams at Montclair State are matching each other, win for win and title for title in a Golden Age of women’s sports, with no sign that they plan on stopping any time soon.