On a crisp and colder-than-usual October day, even by Storrs’ standards, most students are braving the temperatures to make their routine walks to and from class and doing what they can to stay warm.
Meanwhile, stationed at the George J. Sherman Family Sports Complex, the UConn field hockey team prepares for their favorite time of the year. Leaves on the ground and earlier sunsets mean something a little different than just midterms and pumpkin-spiced coffee for this bunch. It’s postseason time.
“It’s the best time of the year,” head coach Nancy Stevens said. “It’s like Christmas.”
UConn field hockey enters this year’s Big East tournament as the top seed for the fourth consecutive season with expectations of winning a fourth consecutive Big East title. For Stevens’ squad, this time of year is nothing new and nothing they are not ready for.
“It’s like every year, nothing’s different,” senior captain Amanda Collins said. “It’s a different team but we hold ourselves to the same expectations to go in and play our best and hopefully come out being the Big East champs.”
The goals for this group goes beyond winning the conference title. With the all-time winningest coach in Division I field hockey history at the helm and three national titles in the past five seasons, there’s more at stake once the NCAA tournament begins.
“I mean we’re the defending national champs, everyone wants to beat us,” Collins said. “Obviously we saw the reactions of Maryland, Princeton and UNC and they were ecstatic to beat us so it’s gonna be the same way in postseason for every team coming to play us.”
Stevens and her recently named Big East Coaching Staff of the Year pride themselves on the strength of their schedule as to why they will be ready for postseason play. The Huskies went 5-3 against ranked opponents this year with all three losses coming to teams ranked in the top-5 (Maryland, Princeton and UNC). As a result of playing such an intense schedule, the Huskies’ revamped defense is primed for the most important time of the season.
“What we had to do was rebuild our defense,” Stevens said. “We graduated a fifth-year senior from goal and then three of the four backs are new so it really was rebuilding the defense and I think at this point in the season they’ve proven that they’re a really strong defensive unit.”
Redshirt freshman Cheyenne Sprecher was named the Freshman of the Year for the conference. Sprecher led all Big East goaltenders with a 1.28 goals per game average and a .755 save percentage while helping the team to a 16-3 record.
With a young defense clicking at the right time and an offensive attack, which continues to be one of the country’s best, things are looking favorable for the defending champions.
This season, the Huskies ranked second in scoring, averaging 4.26 goals per game with the third-best scoring margin of 3.00. It definitely helps when the team has three players in Collins (.68), Svea Boker (.74) and Antonia Tdietke (.84) ranked in the top-10 amongst assist leaders in the nation. Tdietke’s role on penalty corners helped her lead the Big East in assists, a point of emphasis for Stevens and her staff.
UConn regularly practices their various penalty corner plays every day. Stevens knows first-hand that penalty corners are often the difference between victory and defeat and it’s her job to make sure her team is precise in execution while not wearing them down before they take the field.
“You’re going to emphasize corner execution both with your offense and your defense,” Stevens said on practicing in the postseason. “I think too, as a coaching staff, you gotta keep them fresh. So, I think you have short practices, practices are shorter, maybe a bit more intense because it’s a long season and yet you want to enter postseason fresh.”
Cecile Pieper has been as sharp as a tack on offense this season as she led the entire team in goals scored with 21. The redshirt senior and Germany native will look to continue her success into her first collegiate postseason.
Before coming to Storrs, Pieper played for the German national team and even earned a Bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She feels she brings a different perspective to both her teammates and coaches.
“I mean, due to the fact that I have a lot of experience, also [I am] like the oldest girl on the team, I have some advice I can give to the girls and just a different perspective,” Pieper said. “Also, because German hockey is a little bit different than the hockey we play over here. It’s just a good mixture and I also talk to the coaches how we do stuff in Germany and it’s just a good mix of expectations and experience.”
Pieper can also lend a hand to Collins and co-captain Amelia Iacobucci during the most intense time of the season. Although teams are put under a microscope during the postseason, with every goal scored and mistake made even more critical now than ever, Collins and Iacobucci lead their team no differently than before.
“Every game we go in like it’s the national championship,” Collins said. “We’re expected to play the same for every game so we do the same routine. We do the same thing.”
For Stevens, it’s all about keeping her team’s focus on the matter at hand. Players may let their minds wander to the next game or the NCAA tournament, especially as part of a program that experienced so much success in recent history. Breaking down tournaments to chunks even smaller than halves of games helps Stevens’ players manage the chaos involved with this time of year.
“Well, I’m sure it’s always a bit of an issue but you really want them to focus on the game as it occurs which is by the half,” Stevens said. “We’re not even just focusing on that game, we’re focusing on these 35 minutes – the first half. What’s the performance like? Then we move on to the second half. Sometimes you divide it into 15-minute sections so we’re gonna put the game into four, 15-minute sections. How were we in the quarter almost, even though we play halves. So really sometimes you shorten the game in their mind and it’s easier for them to focus. It’s just a different way of looking at it. But always the focus should be on the performance and not the outcome and if you focus on the outcome, you’re probably not going to perform that well.”
For any player, postseason play brings on a number of different emotions that can be overwhelming. Collins has been in this spot before and knows how to turn the extra excitement into focused energy to help her and her teammates perform at their best.
“We try to stay composed at all times possible,” Collins said. “We don’t like to play with emotions. Obviously, there is a lot of emotions playing, but we try to channel that energy into something positive and not negative. We try to channel it into being more competitive and staying composed and also just having fun. We play our best when we’re having fun on the field and playing as a team.”
With one coach yelling out different plays and players moving all about in the last leg of practice, an unusually tipped penalty corner shot find its way in for a score.
One Husky called out:
“That’s a practice ender!”
Stevens agreed and brought the team in, signaling the end of their final practice of the regular season. After a short huddle in what feels like mid-January weather, the team dispersed to gather equipment before they hit the road for their final weekend of regular-season action. The Huskies were their usual selves, winning both contests and elevating their ranking to No. 4 in the country.
The Huskies will take on Villanova Friday in their first postseason action of the season at 1 p.m. UConn previously beat Villanova in shutout fashion at home this year.
Kevin Arnold is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.