September 20, 2006

Field Hockey Getting Results, Worth Watching

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I saw it coming — one penalty corner, then another, and then another, until the scene inside the cage for the field hockey team during its game last Sunday against Vermont looked like something Francisco de Goya might paint.

Battling the Catamounts to a scoreless tie for 65-plus minutes, the Red’s defense finally broke and sophomore goalkeeper Shannon “Kevlar Vest” Prescott — who had nine saves on the day — couldn’t make her 10th as the Catamount’s Kell McClintock converted a loose ball in the crease to a goal. Less than three minutes later, Vermont would score again, and with that, Cornell’s unbeaten streak came to an end.

“We had a great weekend,” said senior co-captain Lindsay Moyer. “Vermont had a full week to rest, and we played back-to-back games. It’s the best start we’ve ever had.”

And Moyer’s right. Despite Sunday’s loss, Cornell’s 4-1 (2-0 Ivy) start to the season is the best in program history. Surprised? I’m not. This is a team that last year reached double digits for the first time ever in the win column (10), and was one heartbreaking, overtime loss to Dartmouth away from capturing second place in the Ivy League. Besides, the referees in Sunday’s match blew more calls than Arizona Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers did field goals against the Seahawks, and that’s saying something.

Head coach Donna Hornibrook, now in her third year with the Red, is pleased with her team’s early performance, but is by no means complacent.

“It’s a work in progress,” Hornibrook said. “I don’t think we’re going to sneak up on anybody this year, and I think teams are prepared to take us more seriously.”

Respect wasn’t exactly what teams were giving Cornell when Hornibrook took the helm three years ago. The Canadian import joined the Red in 2004, and quickly began to rebuild a program that had seen three coaches in three years and finished the 2003 season with a record of 3-13 (1-6 Ivy), good for seventh place in the Ivy League. Hornibrook’s rookie season may not have seemed like an improvement, as Cornell finished with an identical record to its 2003 campaign, which earned it a comfy spot in basement of the Ivy League. However, to the players on the field, a new spirit was in the air.

“The atmosphere’s changed a lot,” said senior co-captain Sarah Miller. “When Donna came in her first year, we didn’t have a great season but every game was close. They were all maybe lost in the last 10 minutes.”

These days, it’s hard for the Red’s opponents not to take them seriously. Last year, Cornell led the Ancient Eight in overall goals scored, and this year’s team is in the top-3 of almost every offensive category imaginable.

What about the defense, you ask? Well, that’s Hornibrook’s specialty; and while the coach is loath to give out secrets to her team’s success, numbers don’t lie. Until this past weekend, Cornell had allowed only one goal on the season, and the Red is giving up a miniscule 0.80 goals a game.

“We really emphasize being a sound defensive team,” Hornibrook said. “If you’re a sound defensive team, it creates pressure and that creates opportunities to score.”

Before this fall, I’d never been to a field hockey game. I didn’t know what I was missing. The stands at Schoellkopf are filled with a decent turnout of Cornellians, but the real fans are blood-related. Parents wear nametags with their daughters’ photos on them, and let’s just say soccer moms have nothing on field hockey dads. The teams cheer for each other at the end of every game (cute!), but don’t be fooled by the skirts and complex hair braids. There’s no room for sugar and spice when the whistle blows, just pure, entertaining field hockey.

Early season praise is the stuff they write on sportswriters’ tombstones. But this field hockey team is good. Damn good. I don’t mean to brag, but I’m a smart assistant sports editor, and I know how to pick ’em. Polo? National champions under my watch. Softball? Ivy League champs in 2004. Jinxes are for voodoo doctors and Red Sox fans, but I’ll let you draw the oblivious conclusions. Of course, Hornibrook has more tact than I do, and while she’s focused on getting her team ready for its next game, she’s not the type of coach to be happy with her team being respectable.

“We haven’t actually accomplished anything yet, other than that we’ve got a team that is competitive,” Hornibrook said. “We’d like think this year that we’re going to have an opportunity to compete, and to seriously challenge for a title. … The outcome is really out of our control, but I think our confidence, our preparation and our discipline, I think those will all be there.”

And so will I, this Saturday when Cornell plays host to Yale at 7 p.m. because I think I see another winning streak coming.

Paul Testa is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Cleveland Rocks will appear every other Wednesday this semester.