L1 Host University of Birmingham on Saturday
By Colin PIke
Premier Division champions Surbiton Ladies start their Vitality Women's Hockey League League Finals campaign on Saturday when they welcome the University of Birmingham to Sugden Road (push back 1.30 pm).
Surbiton earned the second European qualifying place by finishing top of the Premier Division after a 16 game programme, but the hard word starts from scratch as they face three games in three weeks with the aim of finishing in the top two in Pool A to reach the semi-finals at Sugden Road on 1 April.
Surbiton are in Pool A with the University of Birmingham; Beeston (A) 18 March and East Grinstead (H) 25 March.
Pool B consists of Clifton Robinsons, Hampstead & Westminster, the University of Nottingham and Wimbledon.
Everybody starts on zero points and in the League Finals, drawn matches go to a shootout which will earn the winning team an extra point.
Birmingham were last at Sugden Road in November when Surbiton won 5-0, Sophie Hamilton's hat-trick and goals from Hannah Martin and Meg Dowthwaite ensuring that Birmingham's wait for a victory at Sugden Road continued.
Since Surbiton first played in the Premier Division in 2012-13, Birmingham have only beaten them twice, both times in the Second City: 3-1 in October 2017 and 1-0 in March 2019.
Surbiton have won seven and drawn two of the league meetings at Sugden Road, whilst Martin and Erica Sanders have scored for both teams in the fixture.
Birmingham finished two points behind the University of Nottingham in the Bottom 6 league table to qualify for the League finals in eighth place.
Millie Giglio, who clinched a 3-2 home win over Reading last weekend is joint top scorer for the West Midlands students on four goals with Hannah Pearce. Delyth Thomas ended Phase 2 with three goals, supported by Carter Ayars, Lexie Clark and Betsan Thomas who all found the net twice.
Emma Allroggen, Coca Hall, Izzy Lander, Sarah Spooner and Lily Walker have also been on target this season as Birmingham confirmed their place in the Premier Division for 2023-24.
Surbiton will be confident after a stunning 8-2 away win at East Grinstead last Saturday and a 3-1 come from behind home win over Hampstead & Westminster on Sunday.
The other match in Pool A sees Beeston travel to East Grinstead. The West Sussex club were convincing 7-1 victors at Nottingham Hockey Centre exactly a month ago, but drew 3-3 at Saint Hill back in November.
Pool B sees Clifton Robinsons visiting Paddington Recreation Ground for the third time this season, having lost 5-1 in November, yet drawing 2-2 last month. Clifton's only league win over Hampstead came in a 5-4 thriller in October 2019.
The University of Nottingham, playing their maiden season in the top-flight, visit Wimbledon, where they lost 3-1 in their last match of 2022 in December.
The four teams which didn't qualify for the League Finals will now play to preserve their Premier Division status over the next three weekends.
Carrying over their points from Phases 1 and 2, Loughborough, three points clear of the penultimate relegation place, host bottom club, Buckingham. Historically, the fixture has been won by the home team, but Buckingham broke the trend in March 2022 when they won 3-2 at Loughborough University. Loughborough won 2-0 at home in November but Buckingham won only their second match of the season a fortnight ago, with a 2-1 victory at Stowe School.
Holcombe can move out of the relegation zone with a victory at Reading. As with Clifton at Hampstead, Holcombe are making their third visit this season to Berkshire, where they drew 0-0 in October and 2-2 a month ago.