Can’t Tell Me Nothing: Courtney Hendrickson and her journey from walk-on to star

Kelly Fang/Senior Staff

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Courtney Hendrickson was doing everything she could to stay positive as her life’s passion slipped away.

It was early spring 2010. The letters from college scouts were piled up on her desk, yet no one was calling. Months went by, and, much to Hendrickson’s disappointment, not a single program sought her out. A harsh reality reared its ugly head: Hendrickson was not going to achieve her dream of playing Division I field hockey.

Only months before, Hendrickson had been sitting on top of the world. She had just led San Pasqual High School’s field hockey team to a CIF Championship victory in 2009 and had earned All-League and All-Academic honors in the process. Her senior season stood as her crowning achievement in a very successful high school career. Surely, offers to play at the collegiate level would come rolling in.

Soon after her CIF victory, Hendrickson began receiving letters from collegiate field hockey teams — such as UC Davis and Dartmouth — expressing interest in scouting her. Perhaps her dream of playing at the next level would become a reality.

Hendrickson, however, possessed one fatal flaw that would be keep her out of college sports — she simply played too many. Although her athleticism and talent were undeniable, Hendrickson lacked the exposure to attract and maintain the attention of a large number of scouts across the country.

Hendrickson, who had lettered in four varsity sports in high school, never hunted for recruiters and never went to an offseason camp for a specific sport. As the seasons changed, so did the sports she played. Hendrickson spread herself too thin and, as a result, fell victim to a system that demands that its recruits specialize.

“In the end, I was kicking myself for not sticking with one sport,” Hendrickson says.

“Courtney was a multisport athlete,” says her mother, Carla. “I think that many players that are heavily recruited for college commit themselves fully to a single sport, playing club level in the offseason, participating in clinics, seeking out personal coaching, et cetera. All of this helps to increase not only skill level but exposure within the sport. I have always felt that if Courtney was able to dedicate herself to a single sport and was given the training and coaching to refine her skills, the sky is the limit.”

Courtney Hendrickson was making the realization that, for the first time in her life, she would not be playing competitive sports. There was nothing she could do to change the reality of the situation. She began the college application process as any normal student would — relying on her academic prowess to get her into the best school possible.

“I honestly felt a little anxious and lost,” Hendrickson says. “I have been participating in competitive sports for as long as I can remember — it is a big part of who I am. I didn’t want it to stop. Just the thought of it ending after I graduated high school was terrifying. I just kept telling myself that I’d do intramurals and stuff, but it wasn’t the same. I am very competitive and wanted a shot to prove myself.”

That spring, Hendrickson received an offer of admission to UC Berkeley — her dream school — which she accepted almost immediately. It was at this point that Hendrickson believed her athletic career had come to an end.

“My mom was always saying, ‘You know, Cal has a pretty good field hockey program,’ but I knew that walking on was a long shot,” Hendrickson says. With that in mind, she reluctantly hung up her cleats and accepted her fate as just another wide-eyed freshman.

Later that spring, 500 miles away from Escondido, the phone rang in coach Shellie Onstead’s Berkeley office. The Bears’ tenured field hockey coach was starting to prep for the upcoming season when she answered. On the other end was Onstead’s former Team USA teammate Kelli Gannon, who also happened to be Hendrickson’s coach at San Pasqual. She urged Onstead to take a look at an incoming freshman named Hendrickson, “a raw and coachable talent” whom she had mentored for four years.

Trusting in her colleague’s knowledge and experience, Onstead agreed — though doubtful an unrecruited prospect could make the squad.

A few weeks later, as she was sitting around her house planning to make her move up to Berkeley, Hendrickson received a phone call of her own, one that changed everything in an instant. The voice on the other end of the line was Onstead’s, and in a matter of moments, Hendrickson was revitalized.

“To this day, I cannot tell you how or why it happened,” Hendrickson says. “I will never forget how grateful and excited I was to hear from coach Onstead. When she offered me a shot, I almost felt that I didn’t deserve it, and I knew how hard I was going to have to work to earn my keep.”

Hendrickson was given that chance three years ago. Since then, Onstead’s gamble has paid off big. Hendrickson is the cornerstone of the Cal defense. Her performance has been nothing short of phenomenal. The former walk-on is now considered one of the top goalies in the nation and has recruiters across the country kicking themselves for not giving her an opportunity. It has not been an easy road for Courtney Hendrickson, and in the end, the success she found at Cal was admirably earned.

“She has never just been handed a position on any team she has played on,” Carla Hendrickson says. “I think that has always fueled her to work harder.”

“I know how fortunate I am to be in this position,” Hendrickson says. “I couldn’t tell you how it all worked out, but I know I’ll never take this experience for granted.”

Christian Legg covers field hockey. Contact him at [email protected].