July 31, 2006
BERKELEY - To be the best, you have to play the best, and according to that theory, the 2006 schedule may be a roadmap to unprecedented success for the California field hockey team, which is coming off its third straight NCAA Tournament appearance determined to play deeper into this postseason.
The Golden Bears, who finished the 2005 season ranked No. 20 in the nation after a 12-8 campaign highlighted by the Northern Pacific Field Hockey Conference (NorPac) championship, need to come out of the gate playing well and remain at a high level in order to put themselves in position to keep climbing the national rankings.
"It's an intentionally difficult schedule," said head coach Shellie Onstead. "We intend to be aggressive with our progress."
Cal's schedule features five matches against top-10 opponents and showdowns with members of four easterly conferences mixed in with traditional NorPac rivals. The first 10 days of the year set a challenging tone, with preseason scrimmages vs. Pacific (a rematch of the NorPac conference final) and Stanford (the first of three clashes with the Cardinal) followed by season-opening matches against national champion Maryland and No. 7 American University on consecutive days.
"The more teams we can play of that caliber, the better off we'll be," Onstead said. "The first few games are going to be tough, and I think that's OK. A win or loss isn't as important as getting better game by game."
Although the team skews toward youth with only three seniors, more than half of last year's starting lineup returns to the field for the Bears, including the 2005 NorPac Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year, senior forward Valentina Godfrid. Godfrid is joined by five additional returning starters and seven newcomers, all of whom are eager to improve on last year's first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament, a 1-0 loss at the hands of eventual national runner-up, Wake Forest. Cal can avenge that ousting when the Bears get reacquainted with the Deacons on Sept. 4 at Maxwell Family Field.
Coach Onstead, a five-time NorPac Coach of the Year now entering her 12th year at the helm of Cal field hockey, sees the 2006 season as a fitting trial by fire for a distinctly talented team. "Last year we knew there'd be seniors occupying most of the field," she said. "This year's team is young on paper, but the upside is their nothing-to-lose approach. These players are ready."
Aggressiveness on the offensive end will continue to be a trademark for the 2006 Bears, who seek to build on their 3.34 goals-per-game and +1.87 margin-of-victory averages, both top-10 marks nationally. Having lost one second-team and four first-team All-NorPac players to graduation, Cal will run its offense through Godfrid, who enters her senior year as Cal's all-time leader in career goals and points. The 5-6 forward from Rosario, Argentina, collected 28 goals in 2005 to set a new single-season scoring record at Cal and ended the year ranked first in the nation with 1.47 goals and 3.53 points per game.
Opponents who pay too much attention to Godfrid may find themselves burned by other forces, such as sophomore Missy Crane, who scored seven goals in 2005. "We have great potential up front. The Crane sisters [Jenny and Missy] and redshirt freshman Kellie York are all really fired up. We don't want it all to fall on Valen's shoulders, so we're going to develop an attack that involves everyone," Onstead predicted.
"We can stretch the field, and our opponents know that. Gone are the days of being totally underestimated. We're the classic dark horse now, not to be taken lightly."
Efforts to extend Cal's offensive scheme will include the midfield, where six sophomores and a redshirt freshman join one senior, Jamie Nance, to battle for possession, control Cal's transition game and attack the net. Sophomore Andrea Lo, who received Offensive Player of Week and Rookie of Week (twice) honors in 2005, took 19 shots and netted seven goals, including a game-winner vs. Stanford, as a freshman. Fellow second-year player Katie Cummings also brings a scorer's touch to the field, tallying twice for Cal during 2005. Coach Onstead also cites sophomores Gwen Belomy and Rachel Moffitt, as well as the entire incoming corps of freshmen, as ready to respond to the challenge with important minutes against top teams.
"We may even look to move Valen into the mid-line," speculated coach Onstead. "She's been such a prolific scorer at center-forward, but certain situations may call for it. Overall, it's about getting everyone to come together."
Godfrid's ultimate destination in the lineup will cement the position of another versatile attacking threat, sophomore Ashely Glosz. "Ashely is going to help us wherever she is," coach Onstead said. "She's a natural attacker."
Another weapon on offense will be sophomore Carolina Bistue, who played in 14 games and started four contests as a freshman in 2005. "Carolina gained lots of experience last year," according to Onstead, "and she plays beyond her years."
The Bears' backline, which was instrumental in keeping Cal's margin of victory so wide in 2005, will be anchored by senior Lisa Hauck, who enters her fourth active season for Cal after redshirting her freshman year. Said Onstead, "Lisa is just a rock."
Sophomores Halley Crosswaithe and Christina McGrath also bring valuable experience playing tough defense in big games, but "this is a young unit," admitted Onstead. "We lost three very skilled players to graduation [Jessica Bird, Jenna Long and Alana Smith], but these younger players are knowledgeable and they are hungry."
In goal, sophomore Vernonica Sykes is back between the posts after starting every game for the Bears in 2005, including a career-best 10-save effort versus Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament. "Veronica is such a hard worker, on and off the field," said Onstead. Sykes's skill, energy and experience will be vital as Cal faces a wide range of opponents who take shots on goal early and often.
New assistant coach Kelly Knapp (Cal '05), a goalkeeper for the Bears from 2001-04 who played every minute of every game her final three seasons, will bring extra support to Sykes, who underwent successful rotator-cuff surgery following the 2005 season and is back to 100 percent. "I'm excited for Kelly to step across the line as a coach," Onstead said.
With a team that won't flinch in the face of a schedule that mimics the postseason from the opening face-off of the first game, Cal is determined to play deep into the 2006 NCAA Tournament. But you won't have to wait until November to enjoy playoff-caliber field hockey. That starts on Day One for this year's Golden Bears.