Returning top scorers hoping to lead Cal field hockey to America East championship

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School is here, and as AFX dancers begin to fill the parking lot of Underhill late at night, the action will also pick up above them on Underhill Field as Cal’s field hockey team kicks off its season Friday evening against Providence.

The Bears have high hopes this season after finishing the 2017 season tied for first place in the West Division of the America East Conference, going 4-2 in conference play and 9-8 overall before falling in the first round of the conference championships.

For the 21st straight season, Cal is led by head coach Shellie Onstead, a former Golden Bear star and U.S. Olympic team assistant coach. This year, Onstead will try to lead Cal to its first America East championship in its fourth year as part of the conference, and she will have plenty of familiar faces in the rotation.

The team’s top five goal-scorers last season return to the team, led by sophomore sensation Megan Rodgers, a National Field Hockey Coaches Association, or NFHCA, West Region second-team member last year as a freshman. Rodgers led the Bears and the conference with 17 goals in 17 games, tied for the sixth highest in Cal history.

Rodgers is a rising star, but Onstead and the Bears will also need to rely on the experience of senior co-captains Melina Moore and Janaye Sakkas. The veteran forwards have both appeared in each of the team’s 54 games over the past three seasons and combined for 40 goals over their careers.

The leadership of Moore and Sakkas will aid in the transition for the five freshmen on the team, a recruiting class highlighted by Brynn Zorilla, a member of the U.S. Women’s National Field Hockey Team U-19 squad along with Rodgers.

This weekend, Cal opens its season with home games against Providence and last year’s NCAA championship runner-up Maryland. Both teams ended their seasons with losses to eventual national champion UConn — Providence in the first round of the conference championships and Maryland in the national title game.

Cal will have a tough matchup against Maryland, which is ranked ninth in the preseason NFHCA coaches’ poll. The Terps outscored their opponents 2.87 to 1.39 last season, and their offensive firepower and defensive strength will be a good early-season test for the Bears.

The homestand kicks off a tough schedule for the Bears, as they are set to face five of last season’s 16 NCAA Tournament teams. Conference play then begins Sept. 30, as Cal takes on Pacific.

Tim Sun covers field hockey. Contact him at [email protected].