There was a poignant moment as the Black Sticks headed to their dressing room after reaching the semifinals of the Olympics for the first time, following a scoreless draw against world No 3 Germany tonight.
Captain Kayla Sharland yelled down the tunnel "Samantha Harrison" and the striker turned around and did a wee dance before screaming "yes, yes, yes".
Only moments earlier tough as teak Black Sticks coach Mark Hager needed time to compose himself when asked about the significance of their achievement.
"At the beginning if you had said we'd make the semifinals, people would've laughed at us," Hager said.
"I'm ecstatic. It is so pleasing to have a shot at a medal now."
The Black Sticks end pool play on 10 points, good enough for second in Group B, behind the winner of the late match between Argentina and Australia (8.15am Tuesday NZ time).
The Black Sticks will almost certainly now meet world No 1 the Netherlands in a semifinal on Wednesday, provided the Dutch don't suffer a shock last round loss to Great Britain (6.15am Tuesday NZ time).
The previous best result by the Black Sticks women at an Olympics was sixth, in 1984, 2000 and 2004, and the best by a New Zealand hockey side is the gold medal by the men in Montreal in 1976.
The Black Sticks are fast becoming New Zealand's feel good story of the Games.
Ranked sixth in the world and in the pool of the death, most considered them fun to watch but hardly semifinal potential.
They started tonight's game only needing a draw to make the semis, not that the players realised that.
"We didn't tell the girls the permutations, except we told them if you lose by three goals we are out," Hager said.
Sharland admitted she was in the dark when the final hooter sounded.
"I didn't know we needed a draw to get through so that was why I was trying to run off and score a goal," she said.
"We were nervous coming into this game. We knew how much it meant to this group and it is huge. It is such a special group and the last 10 minutes we chased and chased and got there in the end."
It was heart in the mouth material for most of the second half but this team is nothing if not plucky and their goalkeeper Bianca Russell the star of this campaign to date.
Germany had two disallowed goals, a 6-4 penalty corner advantage and had 11 shots on goal to five by the Black Sticks but for all that you did get the feeling that the world No 3 side could still be there at midnight without scoring a legitimate goal.
The Black Sticks started the game on the right note, creating a couple of clear chances only for poor finishing to let them down. Charlotte Harrison crashed a ball into the side netting from close range and Katie Glynn was too slow in the circle after being put in a one-on-one situation with goalkeeper Yvonne Frank.
Because the Black Sticks were generally on the defensive, most of their heroes last night were at the back. Clarissa Eshuis, another enjoying a fine tournament had a good game. Further forward Stacey Michelsen was tireless. But on the day no one could top Russell.
"Bianca has been fantastic," Hager said.
"She has had to make a lot of saves. She has made the bread and butter ones and now again made a special one so it's fantastic."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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