For most, August 28, 2016 was just another Sunday – but for the Cal field hockey team, it was a very special Sunday indeed.
After nearly three years in the wilderness (well, Stanford mainly), the field hockey team was finally able to play an actual home game at Underhill Field at 2 p.m. against Northeastern. Yes, for the past two seasons, the Bears have been banished from Berkeley because Maxwell Field, their long-time home, was renovated with artificial turf that wasn’t suitable for field hockey (too bouncy, among other things).
It took until October 2014 until protests by the field hockey players and their supporters were heard by the administration, and due to complications and delays, the conversion of Underhill Field to a usable field hockey space wasn’t completed until this year.
Which means that coach Shellie Onstead and her team finally had a Berkeley home game on Aug. 28 – and the Bears looked forward not only to that game, but a successful season.
Last year, the team got off to a strong start but was devastated by midseason injuries and staggered to the finish. But with leading scorers Melina Moore and Janaye Sakkas returning – plus goalie Kori Griswold – Onstead is hopeful the team can return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
To do that, the Bears must do one of two things: Win the America East tournament in November at the University of Pacific; or qualify as an at-large team, which is difficult for a West Coast team in an East Coast-dominated sport to do. (And yes, Cal is in the America East, which does seem to contradict geography. But to make it clear, the league has put Cal, Stanford, UC Davis and Pacific in their own division: the America East West. And yes, that’s the real name …)
“As with any team, we’ll need a little luck,” says Onstead about her team’s chances, but with lots of senior leadership – especially from midfielder Monica Marrazzo – she’s confident the Bears will make a run at a postseason berth.
And, at long last, they’ll do so in Berkeley.
If you’re looking for a Cal team with an East Bay flavor, look no further. Coach Kirk Everist played at Miramonte, and the roster of this year’s team is full of players from Orinda, Lafayette, Moraga and Danville, just to name a few Oakland suburbs.
“There are a lot of good club and high school programs in the area,” says Everist. “It’s a natural recruiting area for us.”
And it works pretty well, as Cal is coming off a 24-7 season and a third-place finish in the NCAAs.
But despite that glittering record, Everist expects improvement this year. “We had a really young team,” he says, and sophomore Johnny Hooper was the leading scorer last year as a freshman. “He’s tremendously quick – by far the quickest kid I’ve coached – and in a sport that’s trending to 6-4 and 6-5 guys, he’s very successful at 6-1.”
Another sophomore standout is Odysseas Masmanidis, who even non-Classics’ majors could guess is from Greece. Unlike Hooper, Masmanidis relies on strength and is a surprisingly effective scorer from close in.
Luca Cupido, a junior, is with the American team in Rio, which speaks directly to his level of play, and senior goalie Lazar Andric is from Montenegro, where water polo is pretty much the national sport.
Cal will need all that talent and more to compete in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. UCLA went undefeated en route to the national title last year, and has plenty of firepower returning. Everist feels USC will also be strong, but “we’re right there with everybody.”
Though the Bears are regular participants in the NCAA tournament, they haven’t won a title since back-to-back crowns in 2006 and 2007. They reached the finals again in 2010, and the Final Four last year, so maybe this is the year they get back to the top.
And if they do, it will be a win for the entire East Bay, not just the Cal campus.
It’s about depth. The top five runners in a cross country meet determine the winner, and so it doesn’t take a Nobel Prize winner to figure out that the more quality runners available, the better the chance to win.
Though Shayla Houlihan is in her first year as head coach of the men’s and women’s cross country teams, she’s been on the staff since 2012, and has been part of the steady improvement of the program. “Each year, we’ve gotten better in terms of depth,” she says, and 2016 is another step on the road to national relevance.
Last year, the men’s team qualified for the NCAA meet, and the women were the 33rd team for the second year in a row – and the NCAA takes 32. “Two years ago, we were two points away from qualifying,” says Houlihan, though it would be an easier path if Cal were in a different region. “The West Region is hardest to get out of,” she says, with Stanford, Washington, Oregon and Boise State always strong, and only two teams getting automatic berths. With nine regions around the country, there are just 14 at-large slots available, so the competition is fierce.
This year’s men’s team, though, will be able to call on returners Robert Brandt, Trent Brendel and John Lawson, and Houlihan has high hopes for redshirt freshman Kai Benedict, who broke the school’s record in the steeplechase five times last year. (Benedict did not participate in cross country last year, so he’s a freshman in that sport – he will be a sophomore, in terms of eligibility, in track and field in the spring.)
On the women’s side, returners Megan Borde and Marissa Williams will be counted to score, and freshman Stephanie Jenks is a prized recruit from Iowa (where Houlihan is from) who is expected to step right in.