A tale of two teams with championship dreams

The field hockey team poses for a group photo to commemorate winning the 2023 LEC championship.
By a score of 1-0, USM beat Keene State to claim the 2023 LEC championship.

Championships came in pairs over the weekend at the University of Southern Maine.

The field hockey and women’s soccer teams were the big winners. Each team was the top seed in the title game of the Little East Conference (LEC) tournament for their respective sports. The Huskies had the crowd on their side as the host of both games, played back-to-back on November 4 at Hannaford Field in Gorham.

Field Hockey

Mary Keef sizes up her opponent in the LEC championship field hockey game against Keene State.
Mary Keef holds a Keene State player at bay.

A noontime start gave the field hockey team first crack at their opponents. Conditions were much the same last year when the Huskies ended their championship bid with a 2-1 loss to Castleton University. This year, they’d need to beat the Keene State College Owls to claim the title.

Bonny Brown-Denico has faced a lot of competition in her 26 years as USM’s head coach. Her team proved its toughness with a 13-7 record in the regular season. But statistics alone don’t win championships. And Brown-Denico felt sure her players had what it takes to reach the next level.

“Phenomenal leadership within the team,” Brown-Denico said. “We have outstanding leaders, freshmen through seniors. It’s definitely a player-led group that is outstanding.”

The Owls did their best prove her wrong. Their defense held the Huskies scoreless through the first half. But the Huskies’ defense, led by Julianna Kiklis in goal, was every bit as stingy.

USM finally broke the stalemate in the third quarter. Hannah Banks fought her way into scoring range but the crowd around the goal was too thick for a straight shot. She chose instead to flip the ball up and over the mass of flailing sticks. Banks knew from the moment she made contact that the shot was going in.

“It felt great,” Banks said. “Coach actually had me work on those specific shots yesterday at practice, saying I’d been on them all season and just missing by a little bit. Perfected them yesterday and just put one in today.”

The two defenses held firm for the rest of the game. And when the final buzzer sounded, Banks’ goal was the only point on the scoreboard, giving USM the 1-0 win.

The accolades kept coming for Banks. After the team accepted its championship banner, she was named the tournament’s most valuable player. And the victory celebration doubled as a birthday party since she was turning 22 years old the next day.

Hannah Banks hugs her father, Mike, after leading the field hockey team to victory in the LEC championship game.
Hannah Banks and her father, Mike, share a celebratory hug.

As soon as the award ceremony broke up, Banks headed straight for the sideline where her father was waiting. She buried her face in his shoulder for a giant hug. His parental pride extended to all of her teammates.

“I think it’s well-deserved how she’s worked over the years,” said Mike Banks. “Great bunch of girls. Well-deserved, the whole team.”

The Huskies’ ambitions didn’t end there. Their sights are now set on the NCAA Division III tournament. They’ll travel to Medford, Mass., to face Tufts in the first-round game on November 8. Before turning her focus to the next challenge, Brown-Denico allowed herself a few moments to enjoy the conference title she waited so long to win.

“Feels amazing,” Brown-Denico said. “It’s been 20 years since we won the championship, and the last time was against Keene at Keene. And it’s been a long time coming.”

Women’s Soccer

Riley Reitchel tries to outmaneuver a WestConn player in the 2023 LEC championship women's soccer game.
Riley Reitchel won tournament MVP honors.

A win for the USM women’s soccer team meant more than a championship. It meant a dynasty in the making.

The Huskies have been on a tear since beating the Western Connecticut State University Wolves to win last year’s LEC championship. They practically forgot how to lose, only dropping one game all season on their way to a 13-1-4 record. But WestConn also stayed hungry and fought their way through the playoffs for a championship rematch.

Even with a title at stake, the Huskies acknowledged that some things are more important than soccer. They arrived for warm-ups wearing “Lewiston Strong” t-shirts in a show of support for the nearby city where 18 people died in a mass shooting the previous week. Many of the players have close ties to Lewiston, like Ella Boucher who lives just across the river in Auburn.

A few practice drills helped everyone focus on the task at hand. The energy on the sidelines was electric as players pumped their fists and cheered each other on. A pre-game pep talk from Head Coach Seth Benjamin gave them one more jolt before hitting the field.

“We talked about being relentless and really enjoying the game and understanding how much this group cared about each other and loved each other,” Benjamin said. “That set the tone. We just came out ready.”

“Ready” was an understatement. At the opening whistle, the Huskies exploded from midfield and charged directly toward the WestConn goal. Eliza Roy lunged at a pass in front of the net and got just enough of her foot on the ball to nudge it beyond the goalkeeper’s reach. Only 26 second had come off the clock and the Huskies were already on the scoreboard.

Breanna Atwood warms up for the 2023 LEC championship women's soccer game while wearing a Lewiston Strong t-shirt.
Along with her teammates, goalkeeper Breanna Atwood wore a “Lewiston Strong” t-shirt during warm-ups.

Catriona Gould assisted on Roy’s goal, then followed up soon after with two of her own. With three unanswered goals in less than 20 minutes, the Huskies appeared poised for a blowout.

“I felt confident going into this game and knowing all my teammates had my back and I have theirs,” Gould said. “I think we knew we could do this, we could win this. We’re here to play, we’re here to have fun, we’re here to win.”

But the Wolves refused to roll over. They made the necessary adjustments to protect their goal. As the scoring slowed down, attention shifted to the Huskies’ defense. They bore down to prevent the Wolves from gaining any ground. And the Huskies had the right goalkeeper for the task.

Breanna Atwood’s dominance in goal was key to the team’s rise to prominence over the last several seasons. This season, she set a new program record with her 20th career shutout. True to form, she also held the Wolves scoreless, ensuring a 3-0 win for the Huskies and their second consecutive LEC championship.

“It’s unreal. Honestly, I didn’t have any doubt, I’m not gonna lie,” Atwood said. “With this team, we have so much passion, so much energy.”

Atwood and her teammates will need to tap into that energy once again as they dive into the NCAA Division III tournament. They’ll face Rowan University in the first-round game to be played on November 11 in Cambridge, Mass.

The women's soccer team poses for a group photo to commemorate winning the 2023 LEC championship.
The scoreboard behind the women’s soccer team registers their 3-0 over WestConn in the LEC championship game.