The USA Field Hockey Under-21 team had just two days together, and only one chance to practice as a team, before beginning competition at the Junior World Cup in Santiago, Chile.
“(We wanted) a top-10 to-12 finish,” said Tracey Fuchs, assistant coach of the Michigan field hockey team and head coach of the U.S. team.
The team exceeded its hopes more than anyone imagined, finishing seventh. Previously, no U.S. Junior team had ever finished higher than 12th.
The U.S. team compiled a 4-2-2 record, losing to a tough Australian team 1-0 in the final minute. The point the U.S. team would have earned for a 0-0 tie would have sent it into the semifinals. The team also played to a 2-2 draw with perennial power Holland, which entered the tournament with a No. 1 ranking.
“We played really well on defense, and our attackers were really consistent as well,” Fuchs said. “Things happen when you can play together like that. We were in every game, which is all you can ask.”
Despite coming from such varied schools as Duke, Virginia, Michigan and Wake Forest, all the players set aside college rivalries for the duration of the tournament, immediately bonding as a team.
“(The team chemistry) was unbelievable. I have coached few teams that really clicked the way they did,” Fuchs said. “That chemistry helped us be really successful. (At the end) they didn’t want to leave each other.”
Another reason the United States fared so well was the players’ intelligence.
“We only had one practice as a team before the tournament started and they were able to see something on a board or video and carry it onto the field,” said Fuchs, considered by many to be the best women’s field hockey player ever. “That’s the sign of not only a good player but a smart player.”
Going to the World Cup was a valuable experience for everyone involved, exposing them to different styles of play and allowing them to compete at the highest possible level in their sport.
“Just listening to the anthem means something different now,” said Lori Hillman, tri-captain of Michigan’s team and a member of the U.S. squad. “Being a part of the team was so special.”
Hillman played well throughout the tournament, improving and becoming more comfortable with each game. She and her fellow defenders allowed an average of just 1.75 goals per game.
Unlike in the previous Junior World Cup, this year coaches committed to sending their best players to represent their country, even though it meant losing their services for part of the season. Despite losing Hillman, Michigan won three of four games while she was in Chile.
“Going down there during our season was mentally a very uncomfortable situation,” Hillman said. “It was very hard to leave this team behind and try to represent the country. But I think it really helped me grow mentally as a player.”