The Season of Giving

Dec. 27, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — We are in the heart of the holiday season, often referred to as the season of giving. For the University of Iowa field hockey team, the 2011 campaign was not the season of giving. In fact, it was the exact opposite.

The 12th-ranked Hawkeyes made their 21st NCAA Tournament appearance in program history. A key reason for Iowa’s success: its defense.

In 2010, the Hawkeyes notched three shutouts and had a 3.23 goals against average. A year later in 2011, the squad ranked first in the Big Ten with six shutouts (.30 per game), doubling their 2010 total. Iowa also cut its goals against average in half, ranking third in the conference at 1.60.

With nearly the same squad, it took a devotion to defense to make that jump from one year to the next.

“Team defense was a main focus for our team in the offseason,” said associate head coach Lisa Cellucci, who works primarily with the Hawkeye goalkeepers and the defense. “Part of each practice in the spring season was devoted to improving our team and individual defense.

“The main areas were limiting the numbers of shots and penalty corners, defensive communication and organization, and understanding the movement and switches needed within our match-up zone.”

It is safe to say Cellucci knows a thing or two about defense. Cellucci, a former Hawkeye goalkeeper, is the all-time saves leader at Iowa. She was a three-time All-American, four-time All-Big Ten selection and four-time regional All-American.

In her 12 years as a UI coach, Hawkeye goalkeepers have enjoyed tremendous success. During the last offseason, Kathleen ‘Merty’ McGraw showed signs that she might be the next standout in line. Last summer, McGraw was named to the U.S.A. U21 Junior National Squad and was named ‘Goalkeeper of the Tournament’ at U.S.A. Junior High Performance National Championships.

During the 2011 NCAA Tournament run, she proved that she was in fact the next goalkeeper in line and was leading a much improved Hawkeye defense. McGraw led the Big Ten with five shutouts en route to All-Big Ten honors. She led the conference and ranked 15th nationally with a .768 save percentage, earning regional All-American honors.

“Merty has taken big strides in each of her three seasons as our starting goalkeeper,” said Cellucci. “This past summer, she definitely had a breakthrough and went to a whole other level in regards to her decision making and communication.

“She is a very athletic goalkeeper and that has always allowed her to make some great saves. What set her apart this year, and helped solidify her selection to the U.S. U21 National Team, was her presence and decision making in the goal. Her intelligence in the cage coupled with her athleticism, quickness and solid fundamental skills, sets her apart from most goalkeepers in the country.

“There were numerous games this season that she withstood shot after shot and gave us the ability to stay in the game and come out on top.”

Iowa will return 17 of the 18 student-athletes next year from a team that finished 15-5 this season and 4-2 in the Big Ten. McGraw returns for her senior season to lead the Hawkeye defense.

Iowa is looking forward to even more production in the coming months using part of last offseason’s blueprint.

“There will definitely be similarities from last offseason,” said Cellucci. “Due to our experience, and what we know they are capable of, we will be raising the intensity level in everything we do as well as incorporating more complex tactics. There will be no easing into the spring. We are going to hit the ground running.

“Competing in the NCAA Tournament and playing for Big Ten Championships has always been the standard for this program. This team knows what it is going to take to reach the programs 12th Final Four, and they are ready and willing to put in the work. The staff can’t wait to start spring practice. The planning is in full force.”