This season, the Cal field hockey team has amassed a 12-3 record, defeated five ranked teams along the way and earned a No. 11 national ranking – its highest in a decade.
For fifth-year senior Erin Magill, the success she’s experienced this season has been a long time coming.
You could say that Magill fell into unlucky circumstances. The program was fielding strong squads consistently throughout the past decade under coach Shellie Onstead. The year Magill was being recruited, the Bears made the NCAA tournament. In her redshirt freshman year in 2008, the Bears finished the season ranked No. 16 in the country.
That offseason, eight seniors graduated. Magill probably never saw a year like 2009 coming.
In the final match of the 2009 season — Magill’s redshirt sophomore year — the Bears fell to Stanford in the NorPac Conference Tournament and finished with an 8-11 record, their worst in over a decade.
That year probably marked the best individual season of her career: she led the team in goals as a defender and was named to the All-NorPac second team and the All-West Region Team. But individual accolades didn’t satisfy her; the season was one of the lowest points of her collegiate career.
Going into her first year, Cal had everything she ever wanted in a school, both academically and athletically.
Magill has always had a deep connection to Berkeley. Her grandparents attended the California School for the Deaf while it was located here at Clark Kerr, and her mother was born in Berkeley. Even before the opportunity in athletics presented itself, Cal was Magill’s dream school, so she excelled academically while being one of the country’s elite field hockey prospects on the side.
Multiple Division I programs showed interest in Magill, but when the offer letter from Berkeley came it was an easy decision. Of course, the opportunity to play on a national contending program didn’t hurt either.
“It was basically between here and here,” Magill says. “They were my number one choice academically, and the team was really good when I was being recruited so when they gave me an offer I accepted.”
But when expectations didn’t meet reality during the 2009 season, Magill began to question her own commitment towards the sport and her team.
“I definitely thought I had a point in my career where I was really struggling to stay motivated with the game,” Magill says. “It was like, ‘Why am I still doing this everyday when we keep losing?’
“I hate to say it, but at some point it just felt like we were going through the motions.”
That season would be tough for Magill and the rest of her team. During a particularly rough stretch, the Bears lost eight of nine matches and any hopes of a return to the NCAAs had long since faded.
“When we weren’t performing as well it was definitely harder, because I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Magill says. “It was a self-destructive attitude and I just kind of fell out of love with the game.”
Magill’s motivational struggles became more than just internal, as teammates and coaches began to see the mental fatigue in her demeanor and in her play.
Eventually things reached a boiling point and Magill found herself in Onstead’s office, thinking about quitting the team.
“I pretty much dared her to do so,” Onstead says. “That season was really rough; we went at it a few times, me and Erin.
“If you had asked me two years ago if Erin should stay for a fifth season, I would have said, ‘no way.’”
Onstead says that if there was a singular turning point in Magill’s career, it was when Magill walked out of her office, still on the team … barely.
It didn’t happen overnight of course, but from that point on, Onstead could tell something had changed.
“I think it was just a maturation process by me,” Magill says. “I realized that it was my own responsibility to stay, and I didn’t want to let my teammates down.”
Magill and Onstead’s communication problem began to improve. Magill was able to get past Onstead’s pointed criticisms and realize that her coach was trying to help her improve, not attack her personally.
Now, their relationship is as strong as ever, to the point where Magill feels comfortable going to the coach for problems on and off the field.
“It took a little work from both of us to build it up,” Onstead says. “I have complete trust in her as one of the leaders on this team.”
Sunday’s Senior Day game has ended, and Erin Magill has just played the final home game of her long tenure here in Berkeley. The Bears lost to Stanford, 3-2, something Magill has long gotten used to over the years.
“Oh, I’m not worried at all about playing them again,” Magill says, without an ounce of regret or frustration.
This season, she and her squad had bigger fish to fry, and their goals are larger than beating Stanford in the regular season.
This year, Magill knows that her team has developed a mindset where it can beat any team it plays — something that didn’t exist in past years.
For Magill, the squad’s success this season has a lot to do with the struggles it faced in 2009. The team’s then-youth has now turned into experience and its struggles have turned into resiliency.
“At some point I realized, I have a limited time playing this game and seeing the younger girls work so hard really made me want to fall back in love with the game,” Magill says. “It’s shocking how much winning helps the psychological aspect of the game.”
She smiles. The Bears have been doing a lot of winning lately.