Cal field hockey opens season at home with tough matchup against Syracuse

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It would be a big statement for Cal field hockey to get a win at home in its season debut Friday as it returns to a much-improved Underhill Field for its second year of playing on campus after having been banished to play “home games” on Stanford’s campus. Against a strong Syracuse team that was just named fifth in the nation in a poll of coaches, the chances of a defiant opening statement have taken a big hit.

Coming from the incredibly loaded ACC conference, in which all seven members were in the top 15 of the aforementioned national poll, the Orange are opening their season with a three-match trip around California that is likely to simply serve as a warmup for conference play later in the season.

Syracuse managed to outscore opponents by more than 2 goals per game on average in 2016, and that impressive mark was in no small part due to its ability to simply beat up on inferior competition. The Orange opened up last season by crushing Temple 8-0 and breezing past then-No. 6 Maryland 4-1. They are unrelenting against all levels of competition, a fact reflected in their absurd 17.6 shot attempts per game last season (Cal took 11.4 in 2016).

The Bears’ chances in this game may come from one slightly porous element of the Orange’s defense. Although Syracuse outscored opponents by a great deal by suppressing shot totals to slightly more than half of its own, it allowed 61 percent of those shots to be on goal, a high mark.

With its top three scorers returning from last season, plus the addition of freshman Megan Rodgers, who played with the USA U-19 National team, if Cal is given high-quality shots, its chances of converting a few are decent, especially considering the Orange’s goalkeeping situation.

Last season’s starting goalkeeping, Regan Spencer, has graduated, leaving no obvious heir apparent in her wake. Backup Lucy Camlin, who played a scant 50 minutes, is also not returning, and Syracuse’s head coach Ange Bradley will have her choice of two freshmen to put in net. Borg van der Velde, coming from Netherlands, and Emma Likly, hailing from Connecticut, are undoubtedly talented considering the school they play for, but it’s surprising to see such a strong program have to rely on freshmen at such a crucial position.

The Bears are also moving on from 2016’s primary goalkeeper, but sophomore Danielle Mentink still got a good minutes load last season that will undoubtedly help her adjust to her role this season.

But even if things work out on that side of the field, the challenge for the Bears is still in limiting Syracuse’s offensive output. The Orange return three of their top four scorers from the previous season, and they combined for twice the point total of Cal’s top three-point scorers.

Cal’s foe won’t have any problem replacing those lost players with highly talented players, either; junior forward Jennifer Bleakney seems well-primed to take over a starting spot after managing to score 14 points primarily off the bench season. Those 14 points would have tied her for second with redshirt sophomore Katrina Carter on the Bears roster last season. Bleakney briefly played with the U-19 National Team in 2016, and Friday’s match against Cal is likely to be a barometer for her possible impact for the rest of the season.

It remains to be seen which Bear will most inherit the responsibility left by graduated midfielder Monica Marrazzo, who led Cal in minutes played last year. Rodgers is a fit by position, but if Cal head coach Shellie Onstead doesn’t want a young player to play such a heavy minutes load, Carter may see her playing time rise after playing off the bench in the majority of Cal’s games last season.

A big win over a tough opponent at home would be a huge opening to the season for the Bears, but being blown out in a mismatch in front of fans could be seriously damaging. Something in the middle may be the best the team can hope for.

Andrew Wild is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.