Field Hockey Season Over, Onstead Takes Stock

After a tumultuous season, Cal field hockey coach Shellie Onstead updates the status of her program, her efforts to get a temporary on-campus practice facility built and the possibility of a final resolution at Underhill Parking Lot, even with donations having dried up due to mistrust of the university.

The week after the California field hockey team got home from its traditional big-test weekend in Louisville, Ky., the Bears arrived at California Memorial Stadium at 5:30 a.m., for its thrice-weekly bus to train at Stanford. The bus no-showed. So, head coach Shellie Onstead took her women onto the field in the stadium – one not suitable for field hockey – and played soccer in the dark. It was at that point that she knew for certain what she’d felt for weeks: Not having an on-campus game facility, or even the temporary practice facility she’d pitched to the University, utilizing the abandoned tennis courts atop the parking structure at Hearst and Gayley was finally taking its toll.

[READ MORE: Without a Field, Hockey Hits the Road]

Cal started off hot, going 5-2 and narrowly losing to No. 8 Stanford, 2-1, on Sept. 21. Still, Onstead saw signs that the re-jiggered class schedules – a necessity after she found out, after Telebears had closed, that the team would have to travel to Palo Alto to train up to three times a week, instead of one, thanks to the lack of an on-campus practice facility – and the constant travel were beginning to wear on her team, and, she says, her donors.

Program supporters turned off by the University’s handling of the Bears’ no-home-facility situation, and, more acutely, the lack of concrete plans for a facility until the threat of a Title IX lawsuit in October, have sewn up their pocketbooks, out of spite for the University because, Onstead says, they’re not confident it will be used properly. Donations, Onstead says, have “gone to zero.”

“The alumni been great; they’re writing letters and they’re upset, but all kinds of things have been affected by this: All kinds of relationships are going to have to be rebuilt,” says Onstead. “It’s my program, so it’s up to me to foster the group, but the University could have started that process by showing faith and doing the right thing. I’ve got to get them back on-board. I’d love to be able to share good news with them.”

This is an Olympic coach, with a team that won the NorPac Conference in 2011, and had risen as high as No. 10 in the nation that season, now reduced to 53rd out of about 80 teams. Never in Onstead’s career has her program been in the bottom half of the nation’s collegiate field hockey rankings. For two years, since it was known that Maxwell Family Field was going to go offline, replaced by a parking structure, topped with a football practice field, Onstead has watched her program wither. The second half of this season was the nadir, she says, “specifically because of the poor management of the field situation, after 20 years of work.”

“I think there was a cumulative weakening, just by virtue of the load. We talk about player load a lot, player load meaning how much energy they’re putting out both in school and on the field and everything,” says Onstead. “It was a remarkable start and a really great September, and October tends to be a pretty difficult month. We always expect to hit some bumps, as midterms come in, and they’re more fatigued. I got a lot of love in September, and texts and encouragement, like, ‘Oh, you guys are doing great!’ and I said, ‘Talk to me in October.’ In the moment, day by day, I just thought they were doing awesome, and handling everything really well, including the travel and we kind of got into a groove, but the results in games started to turn a little bit.”

After the loss to the Cardinal, Onstead’s team lost 2-0 to No. 5 Duke, and 2-1 to No. 16 Wake Forest the last week of September, a good showing against ACC teams.

Cal then downed both Pacific and UC Davis by a cumulative total of 6-2, and then came the Louisville weekend. The Bears lost to the No. 7 Cardinals, 4-0, and to No. 17 Boston College 5-1. When Cal got “home,” it was blown out by Stanford in Palo Alto, 4-0, with the Cardinal then ranked No. 3. The team that hung with Stanford only weeks earlier, was depleted, drained.

*****

Again, because of the forced off-campus travel, Cal lost even more time and even more energy.

The same week the bus no-showed, forcing practice on Memorial, the Friday afternoon bus to Stockton for a Nov. 1 tilt at Pacific was late.

“That was all winding up to the NorPac tournament the following weekend, and we had to play Pacific in a conference game,” Onstead says. “We had a training time on Friday after class. We had to go get on their field and they don’t have lights. It’s a pregame practice. I have certain things that I really want to accomplish. The bus is late, and we get snarled in the worst Friday-night traffic, trying to get to Stockton. It took three hours to drive from Berkeley to Stockton. “There was a fatality on the five. Anything that could go wrong, there it was. That was Halloween night.

Three hours that her young women could not take care of academics. Three hours they couldn’t be on campus. Three hours on a bus, in traffic.

Cal had 20 minutes of daylight to practice, and Onstead made sure to use those 20 minutes to train. But, Pacific had locked the field. The entire team jumped the fence and got whatever practice they could for the game the next day.

The next day, the Bears lost, 1-0.

“Now, you’re really eroding their confidence, and that was the last game before the NorPac [conference tournament],” says Onstead.

The Bears beat Appalachian State 3-1 in the first round, but lost in the second round to Liberty.

“I joke that if Sharknado would have happened, it would have happened to Cal field hockey,” says a weary Onstead. “We were just unbelievably unlucky. It was at the point where we would just laugh, because that was all you could do.”

*****

Laughing wasn’t all they could do. On Oct. 1, the families of Monica Marrazzo, Courtney Hendrickson and Kristen Lee, without an assurance that the no-facility situation would change a year from now, retained attorneys, and informed the university administration that they were considering a Title IX lawsuit.

The University quickly came to the bargaining table. The University released a statement two weeks later:

We had a productive meeting this morning with our coach, student-athletes and their attorneys. We discussed the state of our planning for a first class, permanent competition and practice facility and have identified a viable long-term solution pending approval by the committee that has oversight on these issues. Following the meeting we toured the proposed facility with them and the response was positive.

It is our hope that all parties can come to a mutually agreed upon solution quickly and work together in the best interest of our student-athletes and coaches. We have been and will continue to work through the nuances and constraints surrounding getting this proposed location ready by the start of the 2015-16 academic year, provided there is agreement on what we believe is the right solution for our team.


“The working out piece was an initial meeting, and at the sit-down, they said, ‘here are our proposed solutions,’” says Onstead. “One of them was a long-term solution at Underhill, which we kind of knew was coming. The other was a short-term solution: What are we going to do in the spring?”

Underhill sounded reasonable. The issues with the proposed facility – no water for a proper field hockey turf (which was bid on before the powers that be informed Onstead that the cost to pipe water to the facility would be an additional $600,000) and improper length – could be fixed.

“They figured that they could extend out to the sidewalk, take away the pavers in the plaza, and, unbelievably,” says an incredulous Onstead, “they discovered a water source underneath the parking garage. Go figure.”

Onstead was still cautious.

“I said, ‘Alright, are these things really going to come true?’ They’ll put in seating and a press box, and it will actually be a stadium, which we train in, instead of a practice facility that we play games in,” says Onstead. “OK. That sounded good, in theory. I’ve been promised a lot of things, though, so I’m very skeptical.”

The short term plan? Well, it sounded familiar to Onstead.

“It was the same plan that I pitched and begged for a year ago, which is a small practice facility at La Loma facility – the tennis courts on top of the parking garage at Hearst and Gayley,” she says. “A year ago, I was desperately trying to find something that I thought would suffice for one semester. I was lowering my standards left and right. This is big enough. This will work. I had lined up a lot of information for campus, saying AstroTurf is willing to do this. The tennis courts are abandoned. It looks like a war zone. There’s graffiti, they’re all chewed up, the surface isn’t smooth, the nets are tattered. I had AstroTurf take a look at what they could do, and had started investigating the possibility of it getting watered, and I was willing to do that. At the time, they said they were going to do it, for spring. I was desperately looking.”

That was a year ago, when Onstead realized that, yes, the new parking garage at the former location of Maxwell Family Field would indeed be built relatively on-schedule, and that Maxwell would truly go offline. But, Onstead says, the University dragged its feet. In March, as she was scheduling her training at Stanford, the University wrapped the practice facility into a bigger bid, and it never came to fruition.

“I still, at that point, thought that they’d figure it out for summer and fall, and we’ll make it through,” says Onstead. “They never did it. Right before our preseason, they said, ‘We’re not going to do that, at all. It’s not going to happen.’ They pulled it off the table.”

That led to a mad scramble to reschedule classes, reschedule training and reschedule training camp.

Onstead tripled the projected trips to Stanford, to utilize the Cardinal’s full-length field so that the Bears could practice in-game, full-speed scenarios.

“That’s when the kids had to change their classes, after they’d already signed up to Telebears, and it was too late to get into any other classes, and that’s what turned everything upside down, and the parents got involved, the kids hired attorneys, and here we are,” says Onstead.

When Onstead sat down to October’s meeting, she was presented with the same rendering of La Loma she presented to the University a year ago.

“Oh, look at that, a year later,” Onstead says. “At that point, the plaintiffs are saying, ‘But we still have to go to Stanford,’ and the campus is saying, ‘Yes, you would.’ So, that’s not good enough. Now, it’s into the back and forth between attorneys.”

That back and forth has been a constant thrum behind the main chorus of the season, a season that started out promisingly enough, but, in the end, there just wasn’t enough reserve strength for Onstead to draw on, after asking for such a high level of buy in at the start of the year.

Nothing is yet in writing. Nothing is settled. Nothing is done. The plaintiffs have not agreed not to sue.

One counter proposal from the plaintiffs is to give the program Maxwell Family Field back, temporarily, on top of the new parking structure to the north of Memorial Stadium, before it is turned into a football practice field.

“Let us train there until Underhill is done,” contends Onstead. “We just got the response back saying, ‘Yeah, we can’t do that.’ It’s been delayed, and it’s not going to be able to take turf until March or April, which is a problem for us, because we start training in January.”

The University says that the facility at Underhill will be ready by August, which Onstead says is feasible (“I’m willing to buy that,” she says), but in the meantime, the Bears still have no place to train, once they get back from finals and winter break.

If, all things being equal, the Hearst/Gayley project started tomorrow, it would be done in time for January training.

“I don’t want to lose any more training time,” says Onstead. “I want to start getting this program back on track.”

*****

Other than the record, what effects has the facility shuffle had on the program? Well, when Maxwell was first deemed to be going offline, the program had been waiting for a year already, playing on a worn-out turf, waiting to see what they would get once the parking structure was finalized. When it was finalized, there would be no field for Onstead’s program on top of the structure. A year of quality training, and recruiting, had already been effected.

Then, another recruiting cycle was effected, as the team had to move off campus. Now, Onstead is preparing for one of the biggest field hockey recruiting events – a tournament over Thanksgiving weekend – without anything concrete to sell her targets, save for a promise made by the University that she would get her stadium on top of Underhill.

“If we get that stadium on top of Underhill, I’ll call that a win,” she says. “The time we’ve lost? That’s lost time, and that’s what is so unfair to these kids and this program. It has hurt in a number of ways, and I want the chance to rebuild it. I’m pretty stoked I only lost one recruit for 2015 over this. I had two fifth-year seniors decide not to come back, so that’s a huge loss.”

Onstead says that she has had to re-recruit her own team.

“They’ve bought in; they’ve been awesome,” Onstead says. “This particular group, all year, this scenario was ripe to have a team implode, and they were completely the opposite. It was unbelievable. It was amazing.”

While Onstead wanted a fairy tale ending like the one Cal baseball experienced in 2011, with her dream featuring a conference title and an NCAA Tournament berth, the team still exceeded her expectations, going 8-11, 3-3 in conference and 4-4 on neutral fields.

“By a long way,” says Onstead. “People judge by results, and I was pretty sure we were going to come out .500. For me, that would have been unbelievable. We sort of blew it with a couple of teams at the end. It looks terrible on paper. It’s very difficult to recruit, because not everybody knows the story. I’m furious that it’s come to this, and the group deserves better. They come here because they want the best of both: They’re high-achievers. They’re thoroughbreds for lack of a better word, and they choose to come here and get the best thing in the classroom, and the best thing in the program, and they didn’t get it. We let them down.

Onstead has done her part, and now, she says, she just needs the tools. Eventually, it appears as though she will get them, but she is heartsick over the time lost.

“I’m very motivated to make up for lost time,” she says. “This whole time, we’ve been losing time to the rest of the country. It’s sad. I wanted this story of the 2014 season to be awesome. At the beginning, it was great. But we didn’t have that Hollywood ending. We got the rallying, we got the uniting around the adversity. That was amazing, and that’s why we’re still together, and it was the most healthy season we’ve had. We had a lot of the elements to make a run at the end, but we ended up playing Liberty, and played a fantastic first half, and I was like, ‘Here it is! It’s going to happen! We’ll meet Stanford in the final, and this will be great,’ but in the second half, we fell off a cliff.”

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