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. To receive daily news from the Iowa Hawkeyes, sign up HERE.
By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — It is expected when coaches, fans, and players are eager for an upcoming University of Iowa field hockey season. But there is a big difference from being excited for a season and excited for a season with Natalie Cafone in the lineup.
That is the welcomed situation in Iowa City this fall, where Cafone, a two-time first-team All-Big Ten forward, returns after redshirting in 2015 following two procedures on her left shoulder.
Cafone’s “I’m excited” for the 2016 season is trumped only by UI head coach Lisa Cellucci’s feeling of “super excited.”
For good reason.
Cafone was Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year as a junior when she scored 18 goals with six assists and led the Big Ten and ranked fourth nationally in goals per game (1.00). Her most productive season was as a sophomore in 2013 with 22 goals and eight assists. That season Cafone was the NCAA statistical champion for points per game (2.48).
Now one of the most successful athletic programs at the UI will receive a jolt with the return of one of its best players ever.
From 2011-14, the Hawkeyes won 53 games and owned a winning percentage of 66.3. Without Cafone in the lineup in 2015, Iowa was 9-10 and scored 49 goals. The season before with Cafone, the Hawkeyes scored 55 goals in one fewer game.
“(The 2015 season) had its ups and downs. It was difficult for me to sit back and watch on the sidelines, but it was fun to see the team grow,” Cafone said. “I got a different view being on the sidelines, so that was beneficial. I learned a lot from watching my teammates and studying film.”
You can now add “more tactical” to Cafone’s long list of special qualities that also includes fast, skilled, and competitive. And, according to Cellucci, after a year of rehabilitation and conditioning, Cafone is more fit than ever.
“From a coach’s perspective, she is a downright competitor and hates to lose in any situation: practice, conditioning, games,” Cellucci said. “She brings it every day and her competitiveness is off the charts. We can’t wait to get her back on the field; she is probably more fit than ever.”
Cafone is from Fairfield, New Jersey, where she was a four-year starter for West Essex High School. In 2011, after scoring 50 goals with 34 assists, Cafone was named New Jersey Player of the Year.
She has enjoyed success at the next level as well. Cafone started seven games and played in 21 for the Hawkeyes in 2012, scoring eight goals with a game-winner in overtime to defeat Michigan State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
As a sophomore in 2013, Cafone amassed 81 points and had six game-winning goals. In 2014 she added 66 points with three more game-winners. Her 48 career goals ties for 10th in school history.
During her redshirt season, Cafone watched the Hawkeyes enjoy a four-game winning streak early in the season and later knock off Central Michigan and Michigan State before dropping their final four games. Three of the final four losses were by one goal and the final two were in double overtime.
“(The 2015 season) had its ups and downs. It was difficult for me to sit back and watch on the sidelines, but it was fun to see the team grow. I got a different view being on the sidelines, so that was beneficial. I learned a lot from watching my teammates and studying film.” — Natalie Cafone
“Last season didn’t go as planned, so the second that season ended we met as a team and decided what our goals would be,” Cafone said. “From that moment we started preparing for this fall. This summer we had most of the team here; being prepared will be the main thing for us. If we can do that then I think we will find success.”
A strong senior-class core of Cafone, Chandler Akers, Alexandra Pecora, and Sophie Plasteras returns. Cafone calls Pecora an “awesome leader.” The goal keeper had a 1.96 goals against average with an average of 4.6 saves per game. Akers was third on the team with 22 points and Plasteras added a goal and three assists.
Their leadership will come in handy since more than half (10 of 19) of the Hawkeye roster is comprised of freshmen and sophomores. Cafone said most of the younger players were in Iowa City over the summer, building camaraderie and gaining confidence.
Iowa opens the season at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge from Aug. 27-28 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Hawkeyes play Wake Forest (13-6 in 2015) on Aug. 27 at 10:30 a.m. (CT), then they take on North Carolina (21-3 in 2015) on Aug. 28 at 1 p.m.
Iowa’s first game at Grant Field will be Sept. 2 against Fairfield.
“Knowing it’s my last year, I’m going to do what I can, leave it all out on the field, and hopefully we come out with a championship,” Cafone said.
That talk — especially from a healthy Cafone — excites Hawkeye coaches, fans, and players alike.