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Field hockey reverses early season slump

Defending champs at their best on the home stretch

Midfielder Pam Spuehler was named America East Player of the Week on Septebmer 26. Photo by Rob Klein

A preseason coaches’ poll predicted that the BU women’s field hockey team would win this year’s America East championship, and for good reason: the Terriers had copped the 2005 conference crown. That team boasted a 16-6 overall record and proved that it belonged not only at the top of its league, but also among the nation’s best programs.

But that was then, and this is now: halfway through the season the 6-4 Terriers are in a dogfight in the America East standings. They were ranked 17th in the nation in early September, only to be ousted from the top 20 on September 5 after a 3-0 loss to 11th-ranked Boston College.

To be sure, this fall has been a roller-coaster ride for BU. After three straight mid-September losses — during one grueling week on the road — to fourth-ranked Duke, 4-0, Providence, 1-0, and the University of Iowa, 4-2, BU came back home and defeated UMass, 2-0, Northeastern, 1-0, and seventh-ranked University of Virginia, 2-1.

“We had a tough early-season schedule,” says coach Sally Starr. “I like to play a tough schedule. I think that’s how we best prepare for postseason play. But some of those games we lost I’d like to have back, because now we’re getting better as a team offensively and defensively.” She realizes, of course, that she can’t turn back the clock. “We don’t get that opportunity, but what we can do is just keep improving,” she says. And it’s always possible that BU could face BC or Duke again in the NCAA tournament.

Not that Starr is looking ahead to either the conference or the national tournaments in November — or even to the October 15 home game against 10th-ranked University of Connecticut. Call it a case of tunnel vision, but she doesn’t look past any opponents, a strategy that worked last year. “We’re going game to game and practice to practice,” she says. “That was part of our success last season — respecting every team we face.” The result was a memorable year that saw Starr notch her 300th career win, culminating in a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to Big Ten champion Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Last year’s invitation to the national tourney was BU’s first since 2000. In fact, the Terriers made back-to-back appearances in the NCAAs, in 1999 and 2000. Polls and prognostications aside, what are their chances of repeating this feat? Starr says it won’t be easy. She points out that the seniors BU lost to graduation, cocaptains Caitlyn Cassara (SHA’06) and Colleen McClay (CFA’06), “were excellent leaders on the field. They had strong voices and strong personalities. We’ve needed players to step up, and they’re starting to do just that.”

The freshman class is playing well, and junior Pam Spuehler (CAS’08) was recently named America East Player of the Week after stick-handling the ball through three Virginia defenders and scoring the tying goal against the Cavaliers on September 24. Sarah Hudak (SAR’08) netted the game-winner.

“Pam played a great game against UMass, and when Virginia took the lead on us, she found an opportunity to score a tremendous goal to swing the momentum back in our favor,” says Starr. “She’s a dangerous player with the ball, and she’s also disruptive to the other teams’ attacks because of her good instincts and tenacity.”

Recognized as one of the best college coaches in the country — and named the Northeast Region Coach of the Year last season — Starr has been piloting the BU field hockey program for 25 years, bringing the team to the Final Four in 1985, just two years after it began playing in Division I. After guiding BU to seven NCAA tournament appearances, she can recognize whether or not a team has the talent and the chemistry to play at the elite level — and she sees flashes of brilliance from this year’s squad.

Because of their accomplishments last year, Starr says, the returning players also know what it takes to reach the NCAA tournament. “Much of this team has had a taste of that kind of success,” she says, “and I think beating Virginia gives the players real confidence that they can continue to develop.”