RIO DE JANEIRO — As Larksville native Kelsey Kolojejchick dribbled away the final few seconds Saturday, the United States women’s field hockey team started to celebrate.
Now, Team USA can start thinking about becoming a real medal contender at the Rio Olympics.
A three-minute momentum shift triggered one of the biggest Olympic wins in United States women’s field hockey.
Agustina Albertarrio appeared to break a scoreless tie two minutes into the third period, but the Argentine’s goal was nullified. A few minutes later, Katie Reinprecht slipped one under the goalkeeper to give the Americans the lead and the United States went on to defeat No. 2 Argentina 2-1 Saturday in its opening match.
Kolojejchik started for the United States at midfield in the opener, and her fellow former Wyoming Seminary teammate Kat Sharkey from Moosic played extensively at forward in the monumental victory for a USA team ranked fifth entering the Olympics. Dallas graduate Paige Selenski, one of the leaders of the USA team that finished last in women’s field hockey during the 2012 London Olympics, is serving as an alternate on the team.
But despite the early second-half scare, the United States proved its focus isn’t interchangeable.
United States coach Craig Parnham said his team handled the swing well.
“Those can sort of flip a game on its head, but there still was a lot of hockey to be played after that, and I thought we did a nice job of continuing to play,” he said. “It was important for us to keep the pressure on Argentina, and I thought we did that for the second part of the game.”
Reinprecht’s shot didn’t generate much power.
“That first goal we scored, if you saw it coming, you’re thinking, ‘That’s probably not going to go in,’” United States goalkeeper Jackie Briggs said. “But you just never know. You’ve got to shoot it.”
Michelle Kasold scored on a penalty corner with 10:26 to play to put the United States up 2-0. Delfina Merino got Argentina on the board with 3:27 remaining, but the Americans held on.
The United States dominated much of the second half after a rough start.
“I think the first period, we started a little slow, maybe a little bit tentative,” Parnham said. “We’ve got some players that have not played on this stage before. It may be better attributed to that.”
Argentina is among the sport’s greatest powers. The Argentines won the Champions Trophy final over No. 1-ranked Netherlands in June and entered this tournament with confidence.
The United States has had success in some of their biggest matchups with the Argentines. The Americans beat them during the 2012 London Games before Argentina eventually recovered and earned silver. The United States also beat Argentina last year in the gold medal match at the Pan American Games.
The Americans haven’t medaled since 1984, when they claimed bronze in Los Angeles. The United States gained momentum this year by placing third in the Champions Trophy in June, and its No. 5 world ranking is its highest ever.
The Americans spent most of the first period defending their side of the field, but they never broke, and the match was scoreless after the first 15 minutes, despite Argentina’s 6-0 shot advantage.
The United States controlled the action through much of the second period, with six shots to Argentina’s two. The Americans couldn’t break through, and the match remained scoreless at halftime.
“We didn’t play our best hockey and we came out 0-0, and that’s always a good thing, to be able to not play your best and still not get scored on,” Briggs said.
Kolojejchick appeared to generate a penalty corner in the third quarter quarter after the USA took a 1-0 lead, but it was waived off after a video referral by Argentina.
Both Sharkey and Kolojejchick took advantage of opportunities to stall precious seconds off the clock in the USA during the final minute as the team protected its one-goal lead, with Kolojejchick holding her dribble until time expired and a United States victory was secured.
Argentina manufactured 13 shots in the match, but Briggs was up for the challenge.
“Jackie’s done a nice job in there tonight for us, and for the rest of this week and the next two weeks of this tournament, we’re going to need her to be on song,” Parnham said. “She weathered the early storm and did well for us and kept us in the game.”
The United States will play No. 3 Australia at 9 a.m. Monday.
“If we play our game and stick to our game plan, we can beat anybody,” Briggs said.