By Dalton Ray —
In 2016, field hockey bowed out of the NCAA tournament to the hands of eventual champions Delaware. Eight players would never dawn the Cardinal red and black after the 1-0 loss.
Coach Justine Sowry restored her roster by bringing in 10 freshmen for 2017. The team consists of 17 underclassmen and seven upperclassmen.
The vast difference between upperclassmen and underclassmen isn’t ideal, but Sowry expects it to even out as the program continues to draw more attention.
With only 14 players on campus this past spring, Sowry and her staff focused on the sophomore class.
“We worked hard with the sophomores to step up — how they can be better leaders or followers,” Sowry said. “Bringing in 10 freshmen can overpower you quickly. Younger members see what returning players do and mimic what they’re doing.”
The Cardinals kicked off the year with a 4-1 win over Indiana. Freshman Marisa Martin Pelegrina contributed on all four points with two goals and two assists.
Two days after downing the Hoosiers, U of L faced off with the defeating champions. Led by All-American Greta Nauck, the Blue Hens traveled to Trager Stadium.
Behind two goals from sophomore Minout Mink, the ninth-ranked Cardinals knocked off third-ranked Delaware 3-1.
The win is a huge moral boost for the youthful Cards, but Sowry doesn’t want to get too caught up.
“We consider the season a marathon and we simply jumped off the starting block quick,” Sowry said. “There’s a lot of promise, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
The small details about the team are yet to be seen. With so many new faces across the pitch, bumps in the road are expected.
While the Cardinals are still refining trinkets, U of L knows their identity: Playing fast.
“We are fast, we are fit and we can run all day,” Sowry said. “You better be able to handle the ball well and keep position because you will not win against the University of Louisville if you try to match our speed.”
Louisville’s fitness allows them to press and harass opposing teams. The aggressive defensive play will cause some teams to crack if they aren’t prepared.
An early-season test, the Cards face a six-game road trip. Capping the road trip, Louisville faces No. 21 American, No. 6 Maryland, No. 2 Duke and No. 14 Northwestern.
Sowry says the stretch of games comes at a perfect time.
“We can control all the distractions,” Sowry said. “We can be together more — help them connect together, help them communicate better. This can put us in the right rhythm.”
Sowry expects the defense to have a learning curve when it comes to recognizing different offenses. With inexperienced players sprinkled across the field, game-time situations are the only remedy.
Louisville’s two goalkeepers — Ayeisha McFerran and Hollyn Barr — are a great backbone for the learning defense.
McFerran is two-time All-American and ranked sixth in the nation last season with a 1.27 goals against average.
Barr has filled in for an injured McFerran in the opening games. Barr, with a .810 save percentage, has 17 saves and four allowed goals.
Senior Nicole Woods is a pillar for the Cardinals and her experience with USA U21 Field Hockey Junior World Cup team is already paying off.
“What she has brought back from her international experience is indescribable. Her energy, voice and the way she plays causes people to follow her,” Sowry said.
Woods’ communication is one of the biggest improvements.
“The way she is communicating is great. It’s demanding but she helps them understand it’s not personal,” Sowry said.
Of their remaining 14 games, U of L plays seven ranked opponents.
Trager Stadium is the host of the NCAA championship this November and the Cardinals will be battle tested by that time. The question for the young Cards: How much can they withstand?
You can follow Dalton Ray on Twitter @dray5477.
Photo by Dalton Ray / The Louisville Cardinal