Without a Field, Cal Field Hockey Hits Road

With its future field uncertain and no on-campus practice facility, Cal field hockey builds some of the best chemistry head coach Shellie Onstead has seen in her 34 years at Cal.


Cal Field Hockey participates in a Navy SEAL workout in Chula Vista, Calif.

In the spring of 2011, the California football team had to hit the road for spring practice, thanks to a sub-par job of converting Witter Rugby Field into a turfed practice surface for the Bears, who would be spending the fall of 2011 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, due to the $351 million renovation of California Memorial Stadium. Cal practiced on two community college fields and one high school turf during that spring, before Witter was finally made suitable for fall practice.

The Bears finally came back home, and they had a $351 million facility waiting for them.

This fall, the Cal field hockey team won’t even have a turf to practice on. Over the spring training period, the Bears had to travel to Stanford once a week – that’s at least an hour to an hour and 15 minutes, each way, without traffic – because their home – Maxwell Family Field (formerly Kleeberger Field) – has been bulldozed to construct a parking structure adjacent to Memorial Stadium. Maxwell will now be turned into a football/lacrosse practice facility, atop the new structure.

“When they first talked to me about moving off of Maxwell, of course, I was resistant,” says head coach Shellie Onstead, who was an assistant U.S. Olympic coach in 2008, a California Hall of Fame inductee and the first All-American field hockey player for the Bears. “The carrot was, ‘We’re going to build you a proper hockey field.’ I’d never had proper seating or a press box, and it’s never quite been the facility that it should be, like our opponents have, but hey, it was Maxwell and it was a great location. I’m a team player, and I was like, ‘I understand that you guys need the surface, and football needs a practice field.’ I’m not bothered by that.’”

Onstead has always had to schedule home weekends and practices around the Fun Zone and football games, which she did for many years, and understood that it was the price she had to pay to have such a great location for the field, though it took five to six home games out of her schedule every season.

Now, Onstead leaves at 6 am in the morning to beat traffic down to Palo Alto, and then has to get her young women back to school for class. She has spent the last 10 days down in San Diego with her team, building them into road warriors at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Chula Vista, Calif., a facility with which Onstead has had a good relationship due to her history.

“There are very few hockey surfaces in California,” Onstead says. “The only other field in our vicinity was Stanford’s, and it was too impacted, so the plan to go to the OTC was hatched when it became clear we would be without an actual field for the 2014 competitive season. The campus approved the garage to go forward and we sort of got caught in the middle.”

That was back in 2012, and the garage project – which Onstead says was absolutely needed, as “parking spaces in Berkeley are like gold bullion” – broke ground in December of 2013.

“Right then, we knew we’d need a place for preseason that was convenient in terms of multiple practices,” Onstead says. “Right then, we knew we were coming to the Olympic Training Center. We did it about 12 years ago when Maxwell got resurfaced the last time, and that was the best option. That was always the plan, and that was about the only thing that’s stayed the same. The rest of the initial plan was that there would be a temporary surge space for training. Just like every other program. I was relying heavily on that promise.”

When Maxwell was resurfaced originally, the woven carpeted turf was top-of-the-line, and state-of-the-art. It – and hockey surfaces across the country—are different from, say, the grass-simulation turf that now covers the field at Memorial Stadium and Witter. Training on Memorial – which Onstead and her team did for two days this fall – was untenable, and players were practicing playing on a surface on which none of their games would be played. While warming up during the Aug. 13-14 days at Memorial, Onstead’s goalie got her foot stuck, and was nearly injured, because of the different kind of turf.

One freshman from Germany -- who came to Cal because of Onstead’s Olympic resume – also had a strange experience playing on the rubber-filled turf.

“The whole time that we recruited her, we were going to have a practice facility. I knew that there were going to be challenges in terms of the facilities, but everything would work out,” Onstead says. “Then the campus chose not to do the practice area and here we go out onto Memorial on Day One and she looks down at it and stops. She kind of pokes it with her stick and she looks at me and goes, ‘What is this? We don’t have this.’ It reminded me of someone walking out on thin ice. It was funny and tragic at the same time. She started playing field hockey at a very young age and has never played on anything but a real hockey surface. No grass or field turf.”

Onstead -- who has called Maxwell Family Field home for the past 34 years as a player and as a coach – once had one of the top field hockey turfs in the nation. Now, she’s had to ask her young women to soldier through a situation the football team couldn’t even dream of: No on-campus practice facility, no home field and a season’s worth of being on the road.

“That was a set-back, in my mind,” Onstead says. “I think that the administration seems to just assume it’s OK to be on that surface at Memorial, that, in their minds, it wasn’t necessary to build a practice area. Had they done it back in December when I was really begging for it, it would have paid for itself, and now, with the trips to Stanford and everything, it’s really sort of ridiculous. The quick ‘solution,’ which I put in big fat quotes, is, well, they can move to Memorial and to Witter, and it’s just a combination of ignorance and indifference to say that that’s an adequate surface. It’s just not.

“The change in surface is really bad for the players. Field Turf – rubber-filled turf that’s meant to be played like real grass – is not a hockey surface. It’s not a Division I field hockey surface. It’s not an international surface – it’s not a hockey surface on any level, although, to be fair, they play on it in some high schools in America because a lot of football fields are also high school hockey fields. At this level, it’s not a hockey surface. It’s a completely different practice than if we’re on a hockey surface, and it just hit home for me when we got out here at the OTC for the first time, on a real surface. It was so apparent. I had been convincing myself that we would make it work, but when I went from Memorial on Thursday (Aug. 15) to the training center on Friday, I just kind of looked at my other coaches, and I said, ‘This is so awesome, and what we’re facing when we go back home is just ridiculous.’”

*****

These Bears, unlike the football team, won’t have a multi-million-dollar facility waiting for them once they come back from their season abroad. The rugby team had to go off-campus during the 2011 season, because the football team annexed Witter, but they had other places on campus on which to practice. Onstead and her Bears will have nothing.

The original plan was for a field hockey turf to be built back on top of the new parking structure. That plan, though, was scuttled.

“Underhill is potentially going to be the competition field, which proposes a number of inadequacies, but the actual location of our next field has changed three or four times,” says Onstead. “I think it is still up in the air. I stopped asking. It is painfully apparent that there was no plan in place to accommodate us when the only field that supports the program went offline.”

When the parking garage was conceived, discussions began about where Onstead and her team would go, but in the meantime, she had been asking for and setting up a small, temporary practice facility “just to get me through,” on the tennis courts on top of the parking structure at Hearst and Gayley, until the new field was done. That changed on July 18, when Onstead was informed she would not have that area as a practice facility, after having already gotten approval from Recreational Sports, which governed the area. She will have to ramp up the number of times per week that her team goes to Stanford, because of that late development.

“A late development, late this summer, was that this practice facility wound up being taken off the table,” Onstead says. “In the original plan, I was going to go to Stanford once a week, like I did all spring, and once a week, we would get them on a normal surface. Back then, we improvised with random indoor space, a little bit in the High Performance Center.”

The Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance – a part of the $351 million project at Memorial – does have, in its weight room, a woven surface of artificial turf suitable for field hockey, a usable space of about 20 yards by 25 yards on which Onstead could conduct three-on-three workouts for a team of 18. Onstead would have three training sessions for her team each day – three practices in a row, with six different players per practice.

All of those practices were after 5 or 6 p.m., which was when the turf inside was free. That means players got a total of four hours of actual field hockey training per week, including the two hours on the Stanford turf. The rest of the nation – the Cardinal included -- was putting in up to the allotted NCAA limit of 20 hours.

The practice facility was supposed to be a part of a multiple-field bid, and when Onstead inquired as to when the field would be ready, hoping it would be ready for Sept. 1.

“I sent an email saying, ‘I’m headed to San Diego next week, and I’m really concerned about the practice area,’ and that’s when the answer came back: ‘We’re not doing it.’ It was in the bid, and somewhere in the last six weeks, it came out of the bid, and I wasn’t informed.”

*****

When Onstead and the Bears traveled to Stanford, the impact on academics was keenly felt. Cal had posted a program-best 3.3 GPA in the 2013-14 season, beaten out for the best GPA in the athletic department only by golf, but it was far from easy, and it won’t get any easier this fall.

“We went once a week in the spring, and managed to pull it off, and I was really proud of the team and their attitude towards it,” Onstead said. “We’d leave at six in the morning and train from about 7:15 to nine, and get them back to campus by about 10, 10:15, and they were all in class by 11.”

The same thing will happen when the Bears travel to Stanford two to three times a week in the fall (starting this week), but because of the late development of the Hearst-Gayley surface not being an option, players have had to adjust their schedules.

The Bears will actually stay in Palo Alto through Labor Day weekend, so they can train in between their two opening “home” games – even more time they have to be away from Berkeley. The freshmen, instead of going into the dorms that weekend while training on campus, getting exposed to their new environment and Welcome Week, will have to instead spend that time on the road.

“It’s unfortunate,” Onstead says. “It’s because it’s the late change in plans. They had already set their classes up. Telebears is in the spring, and I thought we were going to have a practice area, and we could have a standard, early-morning practice schedule, so this is pushing their schedules later.”

Onstead says she has challenged her team to make sure that the hectic fall schedule won’t have an impact on their academics, but she is concerned.

“They are a very disciplined academic team, and I have a number of girls that want to go to the business school, want to get a degree, want to get their degrees in difficult, impacted majors, and I’m concerned for them,” Onstead says. “I’m impressed that they haven’t expressed concern to me yet. Once it starts going, we’ll see. This whole situation has just gradually increased the pressure on the student-athletes, and they have responded to it.”

Since the team used to go early on Tuesdays and Thursdays to allow players to take 9:30 a.m. classes, without an on-campus practice facility, no player can take classes before 11 a.m.

“That’s going to be an adjustment, for them,” Onstead says. “In some cases, they can take it in the spring, but in more cases, they have to do it in the summer, or next fall, when our schedule’s a little more normal.”

*****

During the sojourn in San Diego, the Bears have bonded in a way Onstead could never have expected, using an ‘Us against the world,’ mentality that pervaded Cal baseball during that program’s cancellation drama and subsequent run to the College World Series in 2011.

“Home” games this season will be played at the University of the Pacific, UC Davis or Stanford. Away games are scheduled for stalwarts Yale, Duke and Louisville.

“It’s a great group, and I think it’s going to turn out to be a really great story, when we perform well this season” Onstead says. “My approach with the group is to keep looking ahead. I’ve been telling them that we’re going to get a new field, it’ll be great, don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine, and every time they’ve asked me ‘where’, early on, I had a different answer: ‘It’s going to be Maxwell.’ ‘It’s going to be Golden Bear.’ ‘Oh, now they’re talking about North Field.’ I stopped just even answering the question, because all of the sudden, it’s Underhill, and I couldn’t even tell the team that, right now. We have to focus on what is in our immediate control: school, team and themselves.”

Early in the San Diego trip, Onstead was floored by how well her team is taking the situation.

“Oh, my God, it’s so good right now,” Onstead says. “They are just coming together so well. They’re excited. They’re training at a really high pace. See, the pace at Memorial is like 60 percent of the real game, and they’re just, they’ve come alive. I think our new international player went from this moment of ‘What have I done?’ to ‘Oh, OK, they do know what they’re doing here.’ Everybody’s just so geeked up to get going and starting. Being here in one place, I’ve had the opportunity to really dig into the team chemistry and team bonding.”

Part of that team bonding? A workout with Navy SEALs.

“I’ve created this ‘Us against the world’ mentality of overcoming, us against the other hockey teams,” Onstead said. “They’re just killing it. It’s fantastic. We had a great opportunity to bring in a Navy SEAL group to work with the girls, and it was amazing. We just completed this weekend that is so far outside-the-box, so great, that I know we’re going to come back from here in probably as good a situation as I’ve been in at the end of a preseason, and I’m really nervous about being able to continue that, and crashing down if we have to go back onto Memorial. I just can’t ask this of them. They’re giving everything right now. It’s just amazing. Then, take them home, and it’s a setback to walk back on that field surface. It’s backwards.”


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