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.”
During position-specific work, Riccardo noticed a variety of new defensive drills this spring. From possession drills to small game-play situations, Van Sickle replicated aspects of practice from her days on the U.S. Women's National Team, modifying this skill work to fit the needs of UNC’s defenders.
“They’re not life-altering drills, I think they’re just probably different,” Van Sickle said. “And variety is the spice of life, so hopefully they’re enjoying them.”
With her drills, Van Sickle reemphasized the fundamental miscues that Shelton saw in last season’s first-round loss.
When asked what areas Shelton saw improvements in over the course of the spring, she pointed to the same principle that she says UNC failed to execute against that fateful Northwestern counterattack — marking.
“There is a distance and an angle that you have to respect, and you have to be in the right spot at the right time,” Shelton said. “We always talk about getting back and turned and picking up players. That was something needed be addressed.”
Unsurprisingly, Van Sickle brought up the same principle as a “key” defensive fundamental that the team focused on this past offseason.
“We have to do a better job of not only man-marking but being zonal in our defense as well,” Van Sickle said. “That’s always going to be a focus for us because, at the end of the day, if the other team can’t receive the ball then they probably can’t score, so that’s what we’re after.”
Along with marking, Van Sickle emphasized footwork and approach, reinforcing that the best defensive approach is to keep distance and be patient rather than always going for the tackle. On the attacking side, Van Sickle wants UNC to continually change its point of attack in order to maintain possession and an overall threatening offense.
Aside from a renewed focus on fundamentals, Van Sickle brings a high standard of performance to the table. Although she is described by Riccardo as “very hard and very tough," this isn’t without putting in the work herself. Riccardo says that Van Sickle is readily available for one-on-one skill work and film sessions. Oftentimes, Van Sickle even emerges as a practice player for the team, putting her veteran moves and decision-making on display in scrimmages.
“Just to watch her, because of her knowledge and the way that she plays, is just incredible,” Riccardo said. “But also her willingness to go back during those games and sit with us and say, ‘Hey, you can do this better’ or ‘You did this so well.’ So she’s even willing to go back, not (just) on the field to help us, but off the field to look at film.”
It’s these extra nudges that Van Sickle hopes will push the entire roster, not just the backs, to become more polished defenders in this upcoming season.
"If you don’t have that collective goal or that connectedness, at the end of the day, it’s not going to work," Van Sickle said. "However we’re best as a unit, whatever our goals are, as long as we have the common goal I think we will be successful. I don’t want teams to score any goals on us. That would be ideal. But if we’re a unit and we’re together I think that’s crucial.”