By Jeff Milby —
In her eighth season in charge, and the program’s fourth in one of the nation’s premier field hockey leagues, coach Justine Sowry has guided the Cardinals to their best season yet in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
A 4-2 league record has given Louisville a berth as the third seed in next week’s ACC Tournament, which the Cardinals will host at Trager Stadium for the first time Nov. 2-5.
The ACC is lauded throughout collegiate athletics for its prowess across sports, but there isn’t a sport in which the league is more competitive, from top to bottom, than field hockey.
“Our first year, I think every team was in the top 10 or eleven,” Sowry said. “It has not changed.”
The conference is loaded with nationally prominent programs. This season, all seven ACC field hockey teams are in the top 13 of the most recent NFHCA poll. Louisville sits fourth among ACC teams, behind second-ranked Duke, fourth-ranked Virginia and sixth-ranked North Carolina.
“It’s just what we expect,” Sowry said. “It’s fun, it’s hard, it’s challenging, but we know it, we expect it and we know that we have to bring our best every single day. If you wanna be the best, you have to play the best.”
The Cardinals were within grasp of the ACC regular season title in their final conference game, losing 2-1 to Virginia at home after leading 1-0 at halftime. Despite that disappointment, 2017 has been a benchmark year for the program. Four conference victories are the most in a season since joining the ACC, and a high since 2013, when the Cardinals finished 6-1 in the old Big East. Louisville’s previous ACC best was 3-3 mark in both 2014 and 2016.
Those successes were hardly a certainty this year. Louisville began the year ranked seventh, the program’s highest ever preseason position. But at the halfway point, with a 4-4 record, things hadn’t gone according to plan.
“We reached a fork in the road when we were 4-4,” Sowry said. “We were not that happy with each other and how we were playing, and the season could have gone one of two different directions.”
Featuring 17 underclassmen, the young team was in need of leadership. That task fell to the three seniors, co-captains Marigrace Ragsdale, Abby Grimes and Nicole Woods.
Behind the quiet example of Ragsdale, the “motherly” nature of Grimes and a mid-season move from the front line to the midfield by Woods, the Cardinals righted the ship and haven’t looked back. Louisville won seven straight games after the pivotal 4-4 “come to Jesus moment” as Sowry called it, including defeats of currently ranked foes James Madison, Wake Forest and Syracuse.
“We chose the right road, and we just buckled down and committed ourselves to the process, and just getting better each day,” Sowry said.
Moving into the postseason, that process-driven mentality will be key. In addition to the ACC Tournament, Trager Stadium will host NCAA Final Four for the fifth time, meaning that Louisville could make a run at a national title while sleeping in their own beds.
A 6-2 record at home this year shows the advantage could pay dividends, but, Sowry says, the keys for her team are the same factors that turned their season around — focusing on the details and the process.
“We have a great record at home,” Sowry said. “We’re comfortable, we know the field well … so, (it’s) a great advantage. However, it’s not gonna be the difference maker. When you’re playing in the ACC Tournament, the difference maker is doing the little things well — doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well.
“When you’re at that next level, in the ACC, any team can win the national championship, so you’ve gotta be on for 70 minutes mentally.”’
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Photo by Dalton Ray / The Louisville Cardinal