By the end of Saturday, the Cal field hockey team will either be planning its trip to the NCAA Tournament or headed back home to regroup for another disappointing early offseason. The team travels to Lynchburg, Va., to play in the preliminary NCAA competition the NorPac Tournament. The formula for success is simple: Win the tournament, and live to play in a playoff for a spot in the NCAA Tournament; lose just one game, and a second consecutive disappointing season is over for the Bears.
“We’ve taken things pretty (normally),” said coach Shellie Onstead. “There’s more on the line, but we’ve been studying, working on different pieces to get better. I just feel like we’re finally getting everything in place.”
The Bears start off their NorPac journey against a Liberty squad Thursday at 10:30 a.m. Cal barely defeated the Lady Flames earlier this season in a tight 1-0 victory in Berkeley. Andrea Earle, who will finally be at nearly full strength for the tournament, scored the winning goal in that game and will likely be an X-factor. The home team will be no pushover, however, as Liberty maintains a perfect conference record in the East Division and a 14-4 record in the regular season.
“We have to remember we’re completely different teams from the beginning of the season to now,” said Cal forward Earle. “We’re using a brand-new system, and it will be interesting to see how it works against a great team like Liberty.”
The Lady Flames are led by star forward Natalie Barr, whose 44 points lead the team. Barr has scored in a remarkable nine consecutive games, and she will fancy her chances to keep that streak going against a leaky Cal defense. But the sophomore from Northern Ireland is only one piece of the powerful three-headed attacking force that awaits Cal. Barr’s two freshman twin sisters, Bethany and Serena Barr, have 23 and 17 points, respectively. The family of star players presents a formidable threat to the visitors, who haven’t kept a clean sheet since they last played the Lady Flames.
On the Bears’ side, Courtney Hendrickson leads the defensive resistance. The keeper will be tasked with blocking more shots than normal, and she will face an uphill task to keep a clean sheet. A large burden will also fall on senior defender Allie Swartz, as the team will rely on her leadership to organize the defense to blunt the Barrs’ influence. The Bears will also be fully healthy for the first time all season, which will add to their options and provide some much needed depth.
That includes the return of Earle, who might need to recapture her All-American form for Cal to make a run to the finals.
“We’re full strength again,” Earle said. “It’s the first time the team has been full strength since the beginning of the season.I’m feeling really good. I don’t know if I’m 100 percent, but I’m 90, 95 percent, so I’m ready to go. I’m really excited, and it will be interesting to see how my leg feels over the next three days.”
If the Bears can get past the Lady Flames, they will likely play UC Davis, a team they have already defeated this season. After that, a probable faceoff against the team’s biggest rival looms.
Stanford, which typically makes it to the final, will be the toughest test for any team in the tournament and will be the odds-on favorite to win the entire competition and move on to the national arena. The Cardinal have made the NCAA Tournament for three straight years since the takeover of the program by coach Tara Danielson, and they are in the midst of a five-game win streak against Cal and will be confident of their chances in another matchup. Overall, it would take a minor miracle for the Bears to take the tournament title, but starting a hot streak is not past the realm of possibility for them, and they will quietly hold on to hopes of redeeming their underwhelming season.
Glenn Borok covers field hockey. Contact him at [email protected].