By: Alex Smith
Only four field hockey teams in the NCAA have games remaining on their schedule.
Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina and UConn make up the tournament finalists, and with the action in Ann Arbor set to begin tomorrow, #15 Boston University’s coach Sally Starr was quick to point out a common thread between all four teams.
“We’re one of the few teams that played all four teams in the final four this year. [Boston College] might be the only other team, and they automatically get Duke and Carolina in the ACC,” said Starr.
BU (15-7) dropped all four of those contests, most recently falling 4-2 to UNC in Chapel Hill. The defeat ended their NCAA tournament run, which they qualified for after securing their second consecutive Patriot League Title. The Terriers had to get through the Fairfield Stags in the play-in round, brushing aside the tournament’s lowest ranked side 6-1 on a rainy Wednesday afternoon at New Balance Field. The win marked BU’s first NCAA tournament victory since 2007.
The Terriers’ 2015 campaign ended the same way as last years, with BU wrapping up a league title en route to a sweet sixteen loss. Despite the same end result, Starr saw significant improvement in her team overall.
“As it turned out the only teams we lost to this year made the NCAA tournament,” said Starr. “That is definitely an improvement from the year before, and the way that we dominated teams we were supposed to dominate, that was an improvement.”
Even winning one of those games could have made the difference for the Terriers come tournament time. “If we could have grabbed any of those overtime games, against Duke, against BC, it would have positioned us to avoid the play-in game and playing a top seed in the first round,” said Starr, referring to BU’s pair of overtime losses at home.
“One thing we realized playing the UNCs of the world is that they are fit, fast, they play with a really high work rate. Our fitness was good, but it can definitely be better. Fitter, faster, smarter is our mantra going into the spring.”
Entering the tournament with a better seed will be a priority for coach Starr, who finds herself fifth among active Division One coaches with 437 wins. Still, she is in search of her first national championship.
“Our goal as a program is to compete for and win a championship, this year, next year, over the next couple of years,” said the ambitious coach before the Patriot League tournament. “To beat the best you have to play the best, and that is what we did this year.”
The Terriers seem to be in good hands going forward with 18 players returning, and despite losing four seniors, Starr isn’t phased. “We have a huge nucleus of kids we can work with this spring, and we are only adding two newcomers to that. 90% of next year’s team is right here right now.”
The Terriers will have a strong class of eight rising seniors; Patriot League first team honoree Hester van der Laan, second team forwards Amanda Cassera and Taylor Blood, and corner specialist Bea Baumberger Altirriba stood as as juniors this season and will likely be the Terriers’ leaders on the field.
The graduates, however, will be sorely missed, especially senior captains Sofi Laurito and Rachel Coll. Katie Bernatchez, who started on the defensive flank, will also graduate this spring, as will substitute forward Rachel Feig.
Coll, BU’s central defender and inserter on corner plays, will likely prove most difficult to replace. “We need to have an answer [in central defence] by the spring, and that is probably the most difficult piece of the puzzle right now,” said Starr. “We need to shore up our back line. That is really your quarterback, where Rachel Coll played.”
The native of New Zealand captured the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year after earning the weekly award several times throughout the season. Her transformation into an elite defender may come as a surprise to her former teammates back home, as she was originally recruited as a forward and listed as such on the roster her freshman year.
BU seems to have no direct in-house replacement, as Coll saw nearly every minute of action this season. No other Terrier inserted even one penalty corner this year, and her quiet composure in the back as well as her ability to play the ball forward from deep will be missed.
The Terriers will also need to replace Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year Sofi Laurito and the 16 goals she netted this season. Frequently a topic on this blog, the Argentine was the center of BU’s offense all year. Her eye-popping runs up field and blistering speed will be hard for the Terriers to do without, and the power and accuracy of her ferocious reverse hits is something that simply won’t be seen at New Balance next season.
“Sofi was outstanding. Particularly in the postseason, she put this team on her back in a lot of ways,” said Starr. Laurito clearly made her mark on BU’s coaching staff, and Starr is of the opinion that Laurito is “in the top 5%” of players that she has ever coached at BU, high praise from the program’s head for the last 35 years. Laurito finished her career as BU’s joint-4th leading scorer of all time, ending with 73 points on 33 goals and 9 assists.
Despite that, Starr is less worried about replacing the star midfielder, as the Terriers return each of the top six forwards on the depth chart. “We have a lot of attacking talent on the team, and some freshmen that are outstanding joining us as well. I feel that it will be more by committee, and in some ways that is good.”
Each of the returning 18 Terriers will come back with another season of age and experience, and Starr was particularly excited about this year’s recruiting class suiting up with a full season under their belt. “What I loved about this year’s class is how quickly they integrated into our culture. The six of them really bought into our team and were integrated very quickly,” said Starr.
Rookie forwards Kara Enoch and Ally Hammel combined for 10 goals on the year, add in sophomore Grace Boston, who was injured all of her freshman season, and that total rises to 17.
Rising senior Amanda Cassera tallied 14 goals her sophomore year, but could only get to 7 this time around. She showed her best form late in the season, and if she can bounce back and sprinkle in a few more goals next season, the Terriers should feel good about the forward position heading into next year.
Add in Taylor Blood’s continued development and Starr’s “by committee” theory seems plausible; it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect 2-3 more goals out of each of those players, and while they might not compensate for Laurito’s electric all-around game, the unit should be able to compensate for her 16 goals scored.
Though Starr was hesitant to hypothesize how her team might set up next season, she did entertain the idea of moving Hester van der Laan into different positions created by the departed seniors. “Maybe Hester will bump up to be an attacking midfielder. Or she could bump back. She’s also great where she was this year,” said Starr of her versatile playmaker.
This season the Dutch midfielder operated in front of the backline, at times interchanging with Rachel Coll. She frequently pushed high up to support the attack, particularly against weaker opposition. Any time the Terriers were fouled inside the attacking 25, it was van der Laan who typically got the BU attack restarted. Her technical skill and vision make her an ideal candidate to replace Laurito in the attacking midfield, but her lanky frame, tackling ability, and accurate distribution also make her an ideal replacement for Rachel Coll. Where she is deployed will certainly be intriguing heading into next season, and given her abilities it is likely she will succeed wherever coach Starr uses her.
The spring scrimmage slate in April will allow Starr to make these tweaks, and that experimentation will be crucial as the coaching staff determines how BU’s backline will look next season. It is easy to see a fast paced, high scoring Terrier team next year, and as the backline will likely take some time to gel, there may be a couple eye-popping score lines for the Terriers early on next season.
The Terriers currently sit at #16 in the RPI, but will likely rise after play this weekend given that they’ve faced all four teams still in action. Collegiate field hockey’s respect for BU is apparent; most mid major teams can’t get an ACC opponent to visit them, let alone play each other annually. Coach Starr has built a formidable program here in Boston, and with a beautiful, state of the art facility in New Balance Field ready to see its fourth year of action, getting a national championship banner remains the only un-ticked box on her to do list.