- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published September 3, 2013
After just three days of practice, the Michigan field hockey team already looked ready to begin the regular season. It was all there on Phyllis Ocker Field: crisp passes, precise plays and energetic communication.
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Three weeks later, it’s still only the first week of September, but the Wolverines just might be close to ready for the November postseason.
Despite a pedestrian 7-5 start last year, a thrilling overtime victory over rival Michigan State propelled the young Wolverines to win eight of their final 10 games, good for second in the Big Ten and ninth place in the NCAA Tournament and final rankings.
“I was very proud of the team at the time and in hindsight,” said Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz. “Coming just short of a Big Ten title with one senior and starting six freshmen is something I’ve never heard of happening before anywhere.”
Nearly all of last year’s team returns this year, and that has raised the bar. With veteran leadership and youthful depth at all positions, Pankratz will once again be able to pull out the playbook that has won seven Big Ten titles and a national championship in her 13 seasons at the helm.
“The expectations can be a little higher with this group,” Pankratz said. “We can pick up where we left off last year since everybody’s back, and we can start at a higher level tactically and not go back and learn things. We can just move forward.
“Last year we overachieved, but remain unsatisfied. Our seniors are very hungry and looking for more out of this season.”
Among those hungry for more is senior forward Rachael Mack. The two-year captain led the team in scoring the past three seasons and has compiled a 46-23 record as a starter.
“We have very high expectations for ourselves,” Mack said. “We want to reach the Final Four. That’s our aim. But first we want to win our regular-season games and go for a Big Ten Championship.”
Perhaps even hungrier than Mack is her fellow captain, redshirt junior midfielder Ainsley McCallister. After being named captain to begin the 2012 season, McCallister was forced to watch the season unfold from the sidelines due to an injury. With a redshirt as a consolation prize, the midfielder was itching to get back to competing again.
McCallister got her wish a few months later, as she was selected to represent the United States as a member of the under-21 World Cup team in July. After playing against the best in the world, McCallister rejoins a team loaded with both talent and aspirations. Adding another leader is always good, but Pankratz wants to make sure McCallister sticks to being the same player that played every game in the Wolverines’ 2011 Big Ten title campaign.
“When you play against the best in the world, your game picks up ,” Pankratz said. ”You get stronger and faster and better than you ever knew you could be before. Having her back this year gives us a lot of leadership and experience on the field. We just want her to play her game and do what she can do, and not try to do everything. If she does that and everyone else does their job, we’ll be fine.”
If Michigan’s captains aren’t enough, the addition of an eight-member freshmen class should help. The freshmen give Pankratz the depth she needs in order to keep up.
“They all are here because they’re tremendously athletic, smart and love Michigan,” Pankratz said. “The big class gives us a tremendous amount of depth. They’ve done a nice job of jumping right in and learning what they need to learn.”
With rolling substitutions becoming more frequent, more and more of the team will see the field this year. As the freshmen quickly try to learn what Michigan field hockey is all about, Mack knows it’s important to make them feel welcome and ready to play.
“What we took from last season is how to better communicate and link with the younger players and create team cohesiveness with each other,” Mack said. “That’s something we’ve been really focusing on so far this season, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job with it so far.
A wealth of additions and minimal subtractions add up to lofty goals for the Wolverines. Michigan has started the season 1-2. The players and coaches alike know that while November’s NCAA tournament looms ahead, the Wolverines must work hard to get there.
“Every year we expect to win the Big Ten championship and to reach the Final Four and contend for the National Championship,” Pankratz said.