A new coach, a new league and a new season have given VCU’s field hockey team a fresh foundation and have the Rams off to the best start in the program’s history.
Now, that may not be saying much for a program that’s known mostly sub-.500 seasons and finished at or near the bottom of the Colonial Athletic Association for the past decade.
Still, VCU (6-0) already has exceeded last season’s win total (5) and is one of only four unbeaten teams in Division I, heading into this weekend’s matches.
“We played decently strong our opening weekend and probably played our best match against Columbia,” said coach Shannon Karl, referring to a 2-1 win. “Since then, we haven’t had our best performances, but I’m pleased with the fact that we’ve played hard and the kids have had the resilience to fight and find ways to win.”
VCU’s turnaround begins with Karl, who at 28 is one of the nation’s youngest head coaches. She had been an assistant with the Rams for the previous five seasons and was elevated to the big chair after a dismal 5-13 season in 2011. That turned out to be the school’s last season in the CAA before the basketball-induced move to the Atlantic 10 for the 2012-13 school year.
Karl, who played at William and Mary under longtime coach Peel Hawthorne and is the daughter of respected northern Virginia coach Starr Karl, overhauled the program, in everything from practice to training to player attitudes.
Last spring, the Rams were up before the sun, practicing at 6 a.m., five days a week. This summer and fall, they practice from 7-9 a.m. on the Cary Street Field. Karl also implemented a much more elaborate and demanding strength and conditioning program.
Mostly, she demanded effort and commitment and accountability. There was little pushback from the veteran roster.
“We had such a terrible year, I think most of us were willing to try anything,” said senior midfielder Melanie Marotta. “We were all committed to doing whatever it took to turn it around.”
Marotta, a senior from Williamsburg’s Lafayette High, is part of the team’s heavy Hampton Roads presence. Eight of 20 players are from the region, and two others are from the Peninsula: junior midfielder/defender Kelsey O’Brien from perennial state power Tabb, and Kacie Yang, a sophomore midfielder from Grafton.
Senior forward Kelsey Scherrer (Chesapeake) is the leading scorer, with five goals and three assists, including a pair of game-winning goals. Three of the top four scorers are from Hampton Roads.
“The Peninsula and Virginia Beach are traditionally strong areas, with some well known and respected club teams, and we want to continue to recruit there,” Karl said. “But the most important thing I want is players who are the right fit for the program.”
Marotta said that Karl as head coach remains the same person she was as an assistant, but exhibits more energy and seems more invested in the players and the program.
“She’s constantly working, around the clock,” Marotta said, “whether it’s watching film or scouting reports, or checking on us or coming up with practice plans. Anybody working that hard for you, you want to work for them.”
Even something that seems relatively minor – changing practice times from mid-afternoon to early morning – has paid major dividends.
“When you practice in the afternoon,” Marotta said, “sometimes you bring a lot of stuff from your day, whether it’s classes or just how you’re feeling, and it can affect your focus. But when you roll out of bed and go to practice, the only thing you’re thinking about is field hockey, and you have the rest of the day to take care of everything else. I think it makes a difference.”
Karl said there’s still much work to do, this season and ahead. But she’s encouraged by what she’s seen so far.
“Even before I got here, VCU had kind of a difficult time recruiting,” Karl said, “but the university’s done a complete 180. Basketball has been a big part of it, but there’s a lot of energy around the school and the city has really embraced the university.
“A lot of the other programs have tried to feed off of that energy, and the administration is doing more and providing the resources and commitment to succeed, and there’s no reason we can’t be part of that.”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun