What do you want this team’s identity to be?
Every coach from high school on up to professional leagues is faced with some form of this question at the beginning of every season. This year, Michigan field hockey coach Marcia Pankratz kept her answer very simple.
“Hard-working,” Pankratz explained. “Warriors. Hard-working. Wolverines. Together. Playing together on and off the field.
When Pankratz inevitably faces her team at the end of grueling practices, during half time of tight games and after emotional fourth quarters, both excruciating and exhilarating, those are the words that will form the cornerstones of her speeches.
While certainly difficult to do, making that determination was only the first step to establishing the culture necessary to support a winning team. Words are meaningless if they aren’t accurate and messages ring equally hollow if they aren’t tested.
Building a culture takes adversity. It takes challenges and tests.
If the Wolverines were seeking a challenge, they had to look no further than the first five games of the season. Four of those matches came against ranked opponents, three of which were in the top ten: No. 10 Wake Forest, No. 3 Connecticut and No. 1 North Carolina. With No. 21 Stanford rounding out the quartet of top-tier opponents, the Wolverines’ opening schedule was anything but easy.
But then again, it wasn’t supposed to be.
“It’s by design that we play a tough pre-conference schedule to play against the best,” Pankratz said. “To improve and see where we are.”
Warriors are built through battle. And battle is exactly what Michigan did.
After falling 4-0 to UNC in the season opener, the Wolverines bounced back with a decisive 3-0 win against Wake Forest en route to a 3-2 record through the first five games, with two wins against top 25 opponents.
The Connecticut game, above the rest, stands out as a step forward. Michigan had not beaten the Huskies since 2005, but after jumping out to an early lead and staying strong enough to withstand a fourth quarter push, the Wolverines ended that 14-year drought.
“We’ve had a steady increase over the games,” said junior midfielder Kayla Reed. “We had a good win last week over UConn which was a good confidence booster for the girls.”
In anticipation of what Reed describes as a competitive Big Ten, Pankratz hopes that battle testing her team will pay dividends later. Running her team through the gauntlet was an intentional ploy to lay the foundation she sought.
A team cut from the cloth of those that grind out every game they play. A hard-working group that gives everything it has for 60 minutes and never says die.
“And I think we are that,” Pankratz said. “So I’m proud of them.”