ROZ ELLIS used a saying to inspire her field hockey players: "Fearless mistakes."
She wanted to encourage risk-taking, trying new things, taking chances. All points seemed fine and admirable, until a friend pointed out a weakness in this thinking.
"Roz, do you think fear ever leaves this world?" she said. "Do you think you can ever remove fear?"
Ellis considered those words. She realized that was impossible. Fear always will remain. You can't will it away with a catchy motto.
The alternative, the friend said, is bravery. Fear exists, but you can confront it.
This wasn't just a lesson for her new team at Stanford, where Ellis, a collegiate assistant for 12 years, was hired as the Cardinal's head coach on June 25, 2021. Five weeks earlier, the school announced that field hockey and 10 other sports destined to be discontinued after the 2020-21 academic year, were back.
Field hockey was the only fall program among those sports and therefore had the least amount of time to move forward. The transfer portal did not offer immediate help and there was no 2021-22 recruiting class. Only 13 players committed to returning, and none played goalkeeper.
And here was a new coach. Bravery, right?
"I walked in with no idea how they were going to receive me," Ellis said. "You're giving a presentation to humans you've never met and you know their history and you don't know what they're going to think of you."
The first thing Ellis did was have a conversation. Much needed to be said, from the players and the staff, which now included assistants Laura Hurff and Michael Barminski.
Ellis gave the players an assignment: What do you want the next 10 days to look like?
They broke into groups and shared their ideas. Some of the biggest conclusions were these: They wanted an open-minded approach, and they wanted to absorb new ideas. They wanted to learn and wanted Ellis to teach them, and were willing to do whatever it took to rebuild the program.
This was what Ellis hoped for, but dared not expect.
"I woke up the next morning very relaxed," Ellis said. "With an extreme sense of gratitude."
The only freshman, Cara Sambeth, saw the return of field hockey as "a little miracle." She was a German junior national team player who deferred her enrollment because of COVID, but still considered Stanford her "dream school," field hockey or not. Her father, Frank, attended Stanford and it was the only school in the United States she was interested in.
When she learned there would be no goalie, Sambeth said, "OK, it will be an adventure. Let's go for it. My American experience will be an adventure, so why not hockey too?"
Now, they could get to work. The Thirteen.
Roz Ellis. Photo by John P. Lozano/ISIphotos.com
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THOUGH STANFORD KNEW what it was up against in its opener against Cal at the Varsity Turf field on August 27, there was so much uncertainty. What were they stepping into?
For perhaps the first time in a major college game, a team took the field without a goalie. Sambeth and Molly Redgrove, who played in 2019 but opted out last season, were the two fullbacks, the last line of defense.
"Both teams were confused," Sambeth said. "Neither of us knew exactly what to do with this situation."
It seems as if an opponent should take shot after shot, right? But as one opponent said after facing Stanford, "They had an extra attacker. We didn't know what would happen."
This was the Great Experiment. A lab of new strategies and approaches. How do you protect a goal with no one in it?
There isn't one approach, but "if we do a good job before the shooting circle (where all shots come from), it's very hard for them to get in," Sambeth said. "It's important that we defend before the circle."
Cal could substitute with a line change, while Stanford had no subs available. Yet, the game remained tight. Stanford allowed only two shots and had the first true scoring chance. Ultimately, Cal scored in the 41st minute to win, 1-0.
It was a loss, but one that proved Stanford could be competitive, and win.
"It showed the fight of this team," midfielder Megan Frost said after the game. "We have our heads up. Going forward there is a lot of potential here, it's a great base to start at. I'm super excited to see what this team is capable of. I think we can work on our attack, but our defense was phenomenal."
In her years as an assistant, Ellis considered what her own approach would be when she took over a program. Her ideas and the intellect of Stanford's students have meshed perfectly and that's illustrated by problem solving.
At each timeout, Ellis hands a note to a player coming off the field. The note mentions an aspect of the game that Stanford needs to improve. A prompt.
"Why aren't we trapping the ball in our trap zone right now?" is one example.
The players gather and, without Ellis' input, discuss how to solve the problem for the next two minutes.
"I don't even listen," Ellis said. "Everyone has a perspective. It's unlocking the ability and showing them the door. Come here, you have instinct. You've been an athlete your whole life. Let's see where your instinct takes you.
"Practice is where I guide the instinct. OK, good idea. Is there a more efficient way to do that? Oh, this? Yeah, there it is. Boom. You're right there. That's the right choice. Good job.
"The athlete gains complete trust in what we're doing, and trusting themselves and their investment in that trust."
The players love it. And from a strategy perspective, they see things from the field that the coach cannot. Bravery is being willing to embrace new ideas and take the field under unprecedented limitations, and to seek excellence in those circumstances.
Caroline Guden. Photo by Richard C. Ersted/ISIphotos.com.
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THIS IS A chance at a program restart. This is the time to develop the direction.
"We have a huge opportunity to rebuild this program," senior midfielder Isabelle Pilson said. "It's a blank slate. We get to decide what we value and what defines us. We want to empower each other, we want to instill confidence in each other, and we want to demand the best from each other."
The loss to Cal was followed by a 5-1 home loss to No. 10 Liberty. Sambeth volunteered to play goalie against a penalty stroke and was disappointed she didn't save it.
"I love to defend," she said. "Why not defend the goal also?"
Stanford still was experimenting, still figuring it all out. And that quest continues. But, in the midst of this, the players talk about a deep connection to each other and a collective energy that fuels them.
"I get lots of phone calls and text messages of, 'Hey, are you OK?' And I say, 'Yes,'" Ellis said. "I didn't know what this group was going to be -- they're amazing. I've been taken aback by their perseverance, grit, resilience, whatever it is.
"When they stepped on to the field that first game, I thought, We're either going to be: Oh man, how are we going to do this? Or, we have an advantage, let's go for this. And that's what they chose.
"When I saw the big picture in the first game, I was like, Game on! This is my crew. This is going to be great."
A week later, a 4-1 rout of Dartmouth. Stanford outshot the Big Green, 22-1. Lynn Vanderstichele scored two goals and Caroline Reinhart and Haley Mossmer had the others.
Since an 0-2 start, Stanford has won two of three heading into its final home game, on Friday at 6 p.m. against UC Davis.
"You can't change the past," Ellis said. "The team needs to feel valued of their importance on this campus, and that's going to take time. It's a process and I'm being very mindful of that space that needs to be open with our group. On the other side of it, we're here. So, who do we want to be? And what do we want to create for the next 40 years?"
With the beginning of the fall quarter, Stanford added a 14th player through a tryout, Caitlin Casey, a senior majoring in public policy.
Stanford field hockey reached the NCAA tournament 11 of the past 14 years and been on campus in some form since 1903. It has history and tradition. The program will only grow from here, and the culture established this year will be the legacy of this group.
"This is a pivotal moment, a defining moment," Pilson said. "How fortunate we are to be on the team during such a crucial time."