Looking out from the sidelines of the University of Iowa's Grant Field last November, UNC field hockey head coach Karen Shelton didn’t like what she saw from her defense.
With the score stuck at 1-0 in their NCAA Tournament first-round matchup against Northwestern, the Wildcats launched a late-game push. Despite five Tar Heels defending the shooting circle against two attacking Wildcats, Northwestern’s Maddie Zimmer beamed the ball into the cage to make the final score 2-0.
Following this early-tournament loss, which ended UNC field hockey’s quest for a fourth-consecutive national title, Shelton congratulated Northwestern on being the better team that day, specifically citing the Wildcats’ fundamentals.
“I can go back historically, we’ve always been a very disciplined and strong defensive team,” Shelton said. “It was frustrating to us all. I think we got complacent. I don’t think that we were as disciplined as we’ve been in the past.”
Caitlin Van Sickle, a starting defender on UNC's 2009 NCAA championship team, returned to her alma mater this offseason to change that. The former three-time All-American defender and Olympian assumed her job as UNC's assistant field hockey coach in January. In her new role, Van Sickle is looking to revitalize the mantra she lived by as a player under Shelton years ago — “Defense wins championships.”
“That was a huge emphasis this spring, because for me the foundation is defense,” Shelton said. “When we get lazy and develop bad habits on defense, we’re not going to work on attack. We’re going to sort out the defense first until we have that, and then we go to attack. So it was the perfect time for (Van Sickle) to come in.”
Van Sickle isn’t implementing groundbreaking schemes or reinventing the entire UNC defense. Rather, the former U.S. Women’s National Team member is drawing upon her 148 international caps of experience to offer her athletes a fresh perspective.
This past spring, you could catch Van Sickle pulling players like rising senior Romea Riccardo over to the side in the middle of scrimmages to point out alternative options. Whether it’s mid-practice adjustments or thorough film review, Van Sickle’s wealth of knowledge is touted by UNC players who’ve had just a few months under her tutelage.
“I’m a person that asks a lot of questions, and she always has an answer for my questions,” Riccardo said. “And I think that’s helped me grow as a player. And even her feedback, she’ll tell me to do something, I’ll do it, and then she’ll always tell me if it was done right or what I can work on.”