By BRANDEE BRITT
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa field hockey team enters the 2016 season with a winning recipe.
The Hawkeyes combined a spring season full of motivation with a summer full of growth. Now, two-time All-American and 2014 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Natalie Cafone is back in the mix, and the Hawkeyes are ready to put it all together on the field.
“We learned a lot from last year,” said UI head coach Lisa Cellucci. “We were in so many games and lost by one goal. We were just a couple sound decision-making skills or tactics away from wins. Now you throw in an X factor (Cafone) and I think it can really help us.”
After redshirting 2015 due to a shoulder injury, Cafone is eager to return to the starting lineup this fall. The two-time All-American was named NFHCA West Region Player of the Year and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2014. She led the conference and ranked fourth nationally in goals per game (1.00), while pacing the Hawkeyes in goals (18) and points (42). Her 48 career goals scored already ranks 10th all-time in program history.
“I’m excited to be back on the field with my teammates,” said Cafone. “I was able to focus on the tactical part of the game on the sideline last season. I learned a lot from the coaching on the sideline and what my teammates were producing on the field. Now I’m just really thankful for the opportunity to play with them one last season.”
“It’s definitely nice to have (Cafone) back,” said Cellucci. “She’s fought really hard to recover from her injury, and she’s looking to be in top form right now. She has the opportunity to finish her career as a three-time All-American and potentially a two-time Offensive Player of the Year. That’s pretty unbelievable.”
Cafone, along with seniors Chandler Ackers (D/MF), Sophie Plasteras (MF/F), and Alexandra Pecora (GK) bring a veteran presence to a team that features five newcomers and 10 total underclassmen.
Two newcomers — freshmen Katie Birch and Sophie Sunderland — are expected to make an immediate impact for the Hawkeyes this fall. Birch helped her under-18 national team to a bronze medal this summer at the European Championship, while Sunderland has played on England’s U16, U17, and U18 teams.
“Katie and Sophie will see the field right away,” Cellucci said. “It’s looking like Katie will anchor our defense in the center of the field, and Sophie will probably play more of an attacking midfield for us. They are both fundamentally sound. They’ve been playing field hockey since they were very young, and they have both played at a high level.”
With the 2016 season just over a week away, the Hawkeyes are eager to get back on the field and return to the top of the Big Ten Conference.
“None of us liked how last season ended,” said Pecora. “It was heartbreaking to lose to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. None of us want to feel that again, so we are so motivated and ready to go this year.
“We’ve been working really hard, and our goal is to be back at the top of the conference. The Big Ten better watch out because we are ready.”
The Hawkeyes open the 2016 season at the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Aug. 27-28.