STANFORD, Calif. – In its second season without a true home field, before which the long-delayed new field at Underhill saw construction setbacks, the California women’s field hockey team has been a world beater. The Bears had downed No. 14 Penn State and No. 6 Stanford en route to a 9-4 overall record and a 4-0 record in the America East Conference, but that undefeated league mark was finally blemished on Sunday, with a 4-0 loss to the now-No. 12 Cardinal on Senior Day.
It wasn’t an ordinary rivalry contest; far from it. Stanford has allowed Cal to practice on its home turf over the past two seasons, and play home games in Palo Alto, and the Cal fans assembled in Palo Alto gave a hearty “Go Stanford!” cheer before the opening horn, in appreciation of the Cardinal's hospitality.
Despite the loss and the two years without a home field, the Bears are in the midst of the program's best season since 2011, when Cal went 16-4 and won the NORPAC Tournament. Last season, after the Bears found out in July that they would not have the home field promised to them two years prior, they went 7-12. A campus spokesman has told BearTerritory that the new field at Underhill, after facing construction challenges, is on pace for a December, 2015 opening.
"I think we got adapted to the road," said senior midfielder Clara Goni. "We have our saying -- every field is our home field -- and it feels like home, so we're trying not to make excuses about it, to not think about the field, and to get it over with. It feels like our field. Being here, we come every week, play at 5 in the morning, we know how it is. We know the field. We know how many people are going to come support us. No more excuses. Last year it was a big thing that we got caught up in. It was really distracting."
The Bears earned a raucous ovation from a capacity crowd of over 400 at the Stanford Field Hockey Turf, which included program luminaries Ashley Glosz, Katie and Kelly Knoche, Erin Magill, Chilly Banuelos, Rachel Moffett and legendary Valentina Godfrid, still the program’s all-time leader in goals (93) and points (220), and the owner of the top three single-season point and goal totals in program history.
"We talked about it before, the other night, who was going to come, and it's as we say -- the past, the present and the future -- we're playing for the past players and the future players," Goni said. "Having all of them here is a great feeling."
"That's one of the biggest crowds we've seen, and it was fantastic," said head coach Shellie Onstead, who's been at the helm of the program now for 20 years. "I think it was a bit overwhelming for the team. We tried to prepare them for it, and I told them it was going to be crazy, and I said it was good warm-up for the conference tournament. They were pretty amped."
Godfrid – a 2005 All-American who came all the way from her home in Rosario, Argentina – has a unique connection to Goni.
“She went to my high school, and my dad knew her because she wanted to be an actress, and my dad took some photos of her, and she came here, and I wanted to come, so I said, 'Hey, Valen, where did you go to play in the U.S.?'” Goni said. "She was like, 'Oh! Yeah! Let me talk to Shellie right now!' She put me in contact with Shellie, and it's great that she's here. She hasn't been here in 10 years."
Goni -- one of two seniors recognized on Sunday -- has helped steady the program during a time of uncertainty and upheaval.
"I feel this group is still really young, they have different hockey styles, and that's what we've needed -- aggressiveness, especially inside the 25 [yard line], on attack," Goni said. "It's been great. They've been doing the job."
"We're tougher," Onstead said. "We got good at it. We got good at the adversity, and we're tougher. Now, we're leaning on that, which is great."
Onstead's coaching staff has also helped steady this group, and that was no more apparent than at halftime on Sunday, when assistant coach Malachi Mahan – who played for Onstead on the men’s national team – laid into the Cal defense, which had allowed two goals on penalty corners (Stanford recorded five corners overall before the break), and 11 shots in the first half.
“They were mistakes, and we're pretty disappointed, because our corner defense has been money,” Onstead said of the corner goals. "They were two really easy-to-fix mistakes. One was a post player who hasn't played much post, and the other was having your stick in the air when you just have to have it on the ground.
"I think we were nervous in the first half, got on our heels. I am happy that they responded at halftime. I just wanted to get one on the board to see what would happen."
The Bears tightened up in the second, allowing just four shots and no penalty corners after the break, but the five penalty corners Cal allowed in the first – while only notching one of its own – were a direct result of not having a full-size field to practice on, despite the addition of the La Loma practice field this offseason.
“Two hours a week [on a full field], we can't necessarily recreate those scenarios," Onstead said. "It's a good observation. We're good at the little things, and have really made some strides in basic skills, now that we have the small training field, but you can only do that live."
Not having a full-length field of their own, the Bears were victims of several long run-outs by the Cardinal, including a coast-to-coast Stanford run that resulted in a goal at 33:49 by Stanford’s Fran Tew, her fifth of the season.
"If I make that mistake on the small field and have to tackle back, I have to run 30 yards, but make that mistake here, and you're running 70 yards, and that was the difference," Onstead said.
Bears goaltender Kor Griswold made four saves on the day, and stood on her head several times to stifle swarming Cardinal attacks in the circle.
“Kori did her job, and they just have to clear it for her,” Onstead said. "I'm sorry for the score line. She doesn't deserve that."
The defense couldn’t clear two rebounds in the first half, both resulting in Stanford goals, including the first goal of the match, 17:31 into the game by Sarah Helgeson on the Cardinal’s second penalty corner, and one by Katie Keyser (her first of the season) 33:24 into the first half.
After the game, several hundred Cal parents, alumnae and supporters – including Onstead’s coach at Cal, Donna Fong (a three-time NORPAC coach of the year) – gathered in a grove near the field hockey turf to celebrate Senior Day. Onstead – herself a six-time NORPAC coach of the year, and a 2008 inductee into the Cal Athletics Hall of Fame, held court with her former players, and introduced the current players to alumni in their chosen fields of study.
Cal has four games left in the regular season, and controls its own destiny down the home stretch. The Bears will face Kent State and Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, before coming back to Northern California to face longtime rival Pacific on Oct. 28, at 2 p.m., in a "home" game in Stockton, finishing the season on Oct. 30 at UC Davis.
"I'd like to mark this as our last 'home game' away," Onstead said. "We have one more. We have to win out, and we'll still be top of the division. We're going to focus on our game at Pacific, which is our 'home game,' and at Davis."
Cal shut out the Tigers last week, and given the history the two programs have -- over 90 games played (second-most only to the Cal-Stanford rivalry on the turf) it's a game Onstead has circled.
"Both Davis and Pacific have built fields, and the parity in the conference is really great," Onstead said. "I think this one was an anomaly. I think most of the conference, it's going to be one- or two-goal games. We expect that, and Pacific upset Stanford on Friday, so we just ran into the same scenario we did at UConn [where Cal lost 10-0 to the No. 1 team in the land], where they're coming off a loss, and they're pissed. That's alright. We need to be able to handle that."