After three weeks of undefeated play, including four upsets over ranked opponents, the Cal field hockey team found itself with their highest ranking in ten years and their first top 20 appearance since the 2008 season.
The now-No. 11 Bears (5-0) had done everything they could possibly do leading up to the Sept. 6 edition of the coaches’ polls – road upsets over No. 16 Louisville and No. 13 Michigan State and a dominant 10-0 win at Pacific – but still sat outside the rankings as other teams held on despite multiple losses.
However, another week and another two upsets later, the rest of the NCAA had no choice but to push Cal well inside the top 20.
“I think it’s pretty accurate,” said coach Shellie Onstead. “Of course, we’d like to continue doing what we’ve been doing and keep climbing.”
The Bears will take their newfound recognition to Evanston, Ill., as they embark on a three-game road-trip, including two tough, back-to-back games this Friday and Saturday.
Their first match will be Friday at 11 a.m. against Northwestern at Lakeside Field.
The Wildcats (5-2) are coming off two straight victories – including a 2-1 win over No. 8 American University – and finished just outside the top 20.
Northwestern is led by junior forward Chelsea Armstrong, who has already amassed eight goals so far this season. Armstrong came in as one of the country’s best offensive players, winning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2010 while totaling 46 goals over her first two seasons.
However, the real test for the Bears may come the next day when they face No. 17 Virginia (4-3). The Cavaliers were one of the best teams in the NCAA last season, finishing with an 18-4 record and a semifinal loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Championships.
Virginia headed into the season with similarly high expectations, but have fallen from their No. 3 ranking after losses to No. 8 Penn State, No. 12 Old Dominion, and Michigan State. While they have underperformed this season, the Cavaliers are still as dangerous of a match-up as any for the Bears.
“These teams are always tough,” Onstead said. “I certainly don’t want us to be complacent because we’re no longer the underdog so we won’t be able to sneak up on people.”
Fortunately for Cal, they have shown this season that they can handle the wear-and-tear of back-to-back weekend matches.
Last year, there were five instances where the Bears had consecutive weekend matches but only one of those times did they come out with a clean sweep. This season, they are 4-0 in similar situations — all of which were against opponents who were ranked at the time.
“It’s been really interesting because you would expect a drop-off,” Onstead said. “But the team has been really strong and at times have played better in the second game.”
The team’s 5-0 start has been led by the standout performances of forwards Megan Shimojima and Andrea Earle, who lead the Bear’s offensive attack with six goals each. Defensively, senior goalkeeper Maddie Hand has been stout in front of the net, allowing only seven goals on 53 shots faced.
“It’s really been a combination of experience, talent and motivated attitudes by all the players,” Onstead said. “The season so far has just been a culmination of all those things.”