'We Want to Keep This Thing Going': UNC Field Hockey Perseveres Through Uncertainty

May 22, 2020, 1:45 p.m. (ET)
Content courtesy of PJ Morales, The Daily Tar Heel

At the end of last season, the University of North Carolina field hockey team was on top of the world. The Tar Heels earned their eighth national championship - successfully repeating 2018's title - and extended their winning streak to 46 games, cementing the team’s status as one of the best in UNC history.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck and everything ground to a halt. For UNC, it meant losing spring practice, modifying summer training and facing the possibility of a canceled season.

Despite this, head coach Karen Shelton said the circumstances are no excuse to be any less excellent.

“We want to keep this [winning] thing going,” Shelton said. “We want to be successful. I think we have a lot of talent returning, so it’s up to us to control the things that we can control, and that is physical fitness.”

Most members of the team are still in Chapel Hill, N.C., meaning they can have their own small workout sessions along social distancing guidelines until training facilities reopen.

Goalkeeper and senior Amanda Hendry was in Chapel Hill for a while before going back to live with her parents in New Jersey. She summed up this summer’s training in one word: “different.”

“We’re all trying to do as much as we can,” Hendry said. “I think we’ve all been trying to keep each other motivated with working out, because it is a lot harder when you don’t know what and when the end goal is.”

To maintain motivation and a strong mentality, the team began having biweekly “sports psych” sessions - which Hendry said wouldn’t normally happen during the summer. Hendry said they have been able to discuss their feelings on everything from COVID-19 and social distancing to mental preparedness and staying on top of workouts.

“They help us to stay in touch and talk about field hockey and keep our heads on straight about this,” Hendry said. “It’s just nice to talk about field hockey sometimes, even if we can’t all be together doing it.”

Hendry - along with forward Erin Matson, midfielder Eva Smolenaars and back Courtnie Williamson - makes up part of the team’s “leadership group," Hendry said.

Smolenaars and Williamson are the two members of this group still in Chapel Hill. Smolenaars said being around teammates, even if it’s just running with two others, gives them the drive they need to push forward.

“We know what it takes to win,” Smolenaars said. “If we want to do what we’ve done the past couple of years, we know that it’s going to take effort and hard work. In order for that to happen, we have to stay on top of our workouts. The good thing about it is that we all love doing it.”

With team facilities closed and large group training prohibited due to social distancing guidelines, there is no set return date for field hockey. As the weeks drag on, Smolenaars said consistency in workouts becomes more and more difficult for the whole team.

The reason? They’re being kept away from the sport they love.

“The big thing that we are missing, obviously, is playing field hockey which, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about,” Smolenaars said. “But it’s not like we’re the only team in this situation, every team has to deal with the same issue. I think the ones that are devoted to their sport and try to stay consistent will see it as a chance to work more on individual skills ... or as a challenge to work as hard as you can.”

To Shelton, it's the ability to get through difficult times and come out stronger that defines her team’s passion and greatness, regardless of what — if anything — happens on the field.

“Sometimes, it’s good,” Shelton said. “When you have something that you love and you’re passionate about, and that gets taken away for a period of time; when you get back, you’re going to appreciate it that much more.”