Story posted November 10, 2009
Author: Edgar Allen Beem
Photography: Bob Handelman
Sunday, November 23, 2008. Two minutes into the second 15-minute overtime period of the 2008 NCAA Division III National Field Hockey Championship, Bowdoin’s Shannon Malloy ’11 deftly intercepted a clearing pass from a Tufts University defender and sent the ball ahead to Kara Kelley ’10. Kelley spotted first year forward Katie Herter ’12 on the left flank and drove a pretty diagonal pass to her. Herter took the ball, spun around to her shooting side, and flicked a high wrist shot that bounced off the Tufts’ goalie’s padded glove.
Waiting to pounce, Bowdoin’s All-American center forward Lindsay McNamara ’09, as tired as she had ever been following 87 minutes of play, somehow managed to lunge ahead of her defender and, with a reverse stick move at a near impossible angle, tapped the rebound past the Tufts’ goalie. McNamara’s momentum carried her into Katie Herter’s waiting arms as their teammates poured onto the field in triumph.
With that little flurry of action on the frigid turf at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, Bowdoin had won its second consecutive NCCA title, defeating Tufts 3-2. McNamara’s OT goal, her Bowdoin record-shattering 92nd in four years, also capped one of the most successful athletic careers in Bowdoin College history, not just Lindsay Mac’s but that of her seven senior teammates as well – fellow tri-captains Julia King and Kristen Veiga, goalie Emileigh Mercer, Tamlyn Frederick, Kate Gormley, Madeleine McQueeney, and Leah Ferenc.
The eight field hockey players from the Class of 2009 posted a 74-5 record (21-2 in post-season play) on their way to winning four New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) Championships, four NCAA Final Four appearances, and two NCAA National Championships. McNamara earned NESCAC Player of the Year honors in 2007 and was named NESCAC Offensive Player of the Year in 2008. She and center mid Julia King were named first-team All-Americans and defender Leah Ferenc was designated a third-team All-American.
Just the year before, the Bowdoin women had gone a perfect 20-0 in winning the College’s first national championship of any kind. A tough act to follow. Yet there is a sense in which athletic success is about more than victory, bigger than any one season, and in which field hockey can be more than a game.
The architect of Bowdoin’s field hockey powerhouse is Coach Nicola “Nicky” Pearson, a modest, soft-spoken Englishwoman who has quietly developed a program that has gone 183-39 since she arrived on campus in 1996. Twice named NCAA Division III National Coach of the Year and six times the NESCAC Coach of the Year, Nicky Pearson is more at home sharing afternoon tea (as she does daily) with her fellow coaches at Farley Fieldhouse than she is talking about her accomplishments. She is notoriously uncomfortable with praise, but suffice it to say she is revered by her players and by her colleagues.
“Nicky is a very humble person,” explains Trinity College field hockey coach Anne Parmenter, Nicky’s mentor at Connecticut College in the late 1980s. “She has a very quiet disposition, but she has an incredibly strong technical understanding of the game. She really dedicates herself to teaching the principles of the game. She does an incredible job of teaching players to see the bigger picture and what it takes to win. Those eight seniors are where I would love our program to go.”
“Nicky is not a yelling coach, but she is very clear about her expectations,” says Lindsay McNamara. “She has an intensity that makes players intense as well.”
“I attribute a huge amount of our success to Nicky,” adds Julia King. “I feel lucky to have played for her.”
Since Bowdoin went coeducational and the Polar Bear field hockey team first took the field in 1972, there have been only three coaches; Sally LaPointe (1972 to 1991), Maureen “Mo” Flaherty Minicus (1992 to 1995), and Nicky Pearson. The three women have led Bowdoin field hockey to a combined 362-152-17 record with only five losing seasons, none since 1990.
Nicky Pearson hates to lose, but, while you may find her pacing the sidelines, she is not a Pat Summit or Bobby Knight. She is restrained, calm, and confident. She models the behavior she wants from her players.
“When the game starts, it really is up to the players,” Pearson insists. “I believe my players walk onto the field with a sense of confidence in themselves and confidence in their teammates. They’re having ownership is huge with me. I want them to feel that this is their team, that they are important and respected members of the team, and to feel a lot of pride in the program.”
Bowdoin practices focus heavily on skill drills, one-on-one defense, and team defense. Pearson tends to leave conditioning up to the players. But the consensus of opinion about her strength as a coach, the secret to the success of Bowdoin field hockey, is that she excels at player development.
Gillian McDonald ’04, now field hockey coach at Hamilton College, was a record-setting goalie while at Bowdoin.
“The biggest thing she does is that she’s really good at developing players,” says McDonald, who calls Pearson her mentor. “She knows what kind of player she wants and then she mentors and develops them. Every single player I played with for four years improved.”
“I was nowhere near the field hockey player I am today when I got to Bowdoin,” attests Julia King. “My parents were astonished at how much better I became.”
Young women who have played for Pearson say she has an uncanny ability to read personalities and for giving each individual what she needs, whether it’s praise and encouragement, simple instruction, or tough love. She assesses the strengths and weaknesses in a player’s game, builds on the strengths, and improves the weaknesses.
“Nicky will take someone who is a walk-on and make them into a starter,” says King. “Lindsay wasn’t even recruited for field hockey and look what she’s done.”
Lindsay McNamara, recruited to play ice hockey, is a three-sport athlete, playing field hockey, ice hockey, and lacrosse.
“Some of our best competition is scrimmages at practice,” says McNamara. “We’re so good because we’re our own best competition.”
And one of their own has also been their best inspiration.
NESCAC teams only began competing in NCAA tournaments a decade ago, but Bowdoin started knocking on the national championship door almost immediately. In 2000, the 15-2 Polar Bears won the NESCAC but lost to Springfield College in overtime in the regional semifinal.
In 2005, an 18-1 Bowdoin team lost to Messiah College of Pennsylvania in the NCAA semifinal.
“But in many ways,” says Bowdoin sports information director Jim Caton, “the 2006 team was our most remarkable team.”
The 2006 team was remarkable because they again made it to the NCAA semifinals while reeling from the sudden loss of their on-field leader, now their inspirational leader.
When Bowdoin lost 2-1 to Messiah in the 2005 semifinals, a fiery redhead from Bowdoin looked across the field at the victors and told her teammates, “That could be us.”
Taryn King, then a junior, was a commanding presence both on and off the field. She exuded a confidence, a passion, and a determination that was irresistible. If she said Bowdoin could be the best in the nation, no one was going to argue with her. King was the NESCAC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American in 2005. 2006 was going to be Bowdoin’s year. Then tragedy struck and struck hard.
In January of 2006, while studying abroad in Galway, Ireland, Taryn King contracted a deadly bacterial infection and died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. The entire Bowdoin community was stunned. Her field hockey teammates were devastated. And her coach, who to this day cannot talk about Taryn King without tearing up, knew she had the coaching job of a lifetime ahead of her.
“What impressed me about Nicky,” says Gillian McDonald, “was how strong she was for those girls. I could tell how upset she was, but she kept herself together for those girls.”
Nicky Pearson knew there would be a temptation to dedicate the 2006 season to Taryn, to shoot for a national championship in her memory, but she also knew that was just too much pressure to put on the backs of two dozen young women.
“We talked a lot about her,” says Pearson of King, “but it was more of an unspoken motivation than a public activity. I didn’t want the players to do that.”
Together with co-captains Burgess LePage ’07 and Susan Morris ’07, Pearson made an effort to help Taryn’s teammates grieve together, to share stories, memories, and coping strategies, and to bring the new first year players into the process. The women ended up sitting on the turf field late one evening and pouring out their emotions.
“We decided we’d play with her, not for her,” says Burgess LePage of her best friend Taryn King.
The field hockey team had the initials “TK” embroidered on the left sleeves of their uniforms and resolved to play with the never-say-die fire and determination of the leader they had lost. That fire led them back to the 2006 Final Four where, despite dominating Messiah in the semifinal, they lost 1-0.
“We just couldn’t put the ball in the goal,” says LePage, who had the courage to do a CBS Sports interview about Taryn King just minutes after losing the Messiah game.
In the wake of the 2006 Final Four loss, the Bowdoin team, along with friends and families, went out to dinner together at Belhurst Castle in Geneva, New York, not far from the Hobart and William Smith campus where the NCAA tournament was played. At that dinner, Mike LePage ’78, Burgess’s father, publicly predicted that the Polar Bears would win the national championship the following year.
“The very first day of the ’07 season they had a mission,” recalls Nicky Pearson. “It was like a high speed train. If you stood in the way, you had to be prepared to be bowled over. It wasn’t necessary to stoke the engine. My job was just to keep them on the tracks.”
The 2007 season was a 20-0 juggernaut. The Bowdoin women outscored their opponents 76-6, allowing only one goal in the regular season before knocking off Williams 2-1 and Middlebury 3-1 to win the NESCAC Championship. In the NCAA tournament they roared through Skidmore 2-1, Rowan 5-0, and Lebanon Valley 1-0 only to face Middlebury again in the championship game.
Taryn King’s teammates from the Class of 2007 – Burgess LePage, Susan Morris, Kate Leonard, Sarah Horn, and Gail Winning – all made the trip to Collegeville, Pennsylvania, for the big game. This time they would not be disappointed. Bowdoin defeated Middlebury 4-3.
“The entire season I felt I was there with them,” says LePage. “When they did it, it was a mixture of relief and pride – for them and for us. I was sobbing at the end of the game. We did it!”
And that’s how field hockey can be more than a game. Generations of Bowdoin field hockey players, not to mention countless fans, friends, and families, shared in the excitement of Bowdoin’s first national championship.
Though the outcome was the same, the 2008 season was distinctly different. The defending national champions found that they were almost expected to win, so when their 39-0 home win streak was broken by a 2-0 Homecoming loss to Trinity, it was something of a wake-up call.
“We lost to Trinity and we lost to Tufts,” says Nicky Pearson. “It was incredibly disappointing to lose those games, but looking back it was the best thing that could have happened.”
Following the two regular season home losses, the Bowdoin women refocused, stepped up their intensity, and went into the post-season with the pressure off. Tufts, the #1 seed, was the undefeated team, but Bowdoin would defeat the Jumbos twice, 1-0 to win the NESCAC title and the 3-2 OT victory for their second national title.
“When you get to the Final Four,” says Nicky Pearson, “all four teams are talented. For me, one of the deciding factors is resilience, mental toughness. Our teams are mentally tough.”
They also still have Taryn King on their minds and in their hearts. If you don’t believe it, check out their wrists. Some of those pink ribbons have been there year-round for three years now.
“Our class is the last class that played with her,” says Lindsay McNamara, fingering her ribbon. “The way she played, she put the program on the map. Taryn King is what Bowdoin field hockey is all about.”
“Subconsciously,” adds Julia King, “all of us think of Taryn every time we step onto the field. We didn’t take for granted being on that field.”
Ed Note: On Thursday, March 18, 2010, Taryn's cousin, Jay King—a blogger for Celtics Town—remembered the shock and grief of Taryn’s death, along with the healing power of sports.
And even after four consecutive Final Four appearances, they don’t take for granted getting into the NCAA tournament. The conference is just too tough.
“The hardest part of winning an NCAA title is breaking out of NESCAC,” observes Gillian McDonald, whose Hamilton Continentals play in the Liberty League.
After decades of Mid-Atlantic dominance by schools such as The College of New Jersey, SUNY Cortland, and Salisbury University of Maryland, NCAA Division III field hockey has come home to roost in New England in recent years.
Though the high academic standards of the NESCAC colleges limit the pool of recruits, those student-athletes who do make the grade tend to come from families, communities, and schools that prepare them well for all-round success. They have often played in the most competitive developmental programs and benefited from sports camps of all kinds. They know how to compete.
In the case of the 2008 field hockey team, 14 of the players were multi-sport athletes. Key players such as Lindsay McNamara and Katie Herter play three sports. Indeed, the fact that six field hockey players also play ice hockey may have contributed the slow start women’s hockey got off to this year. One-third of the team was missing for several weeks while they competed in the NCAA field hockey tournament.
As with the success that the Bowdoin women’s basketball program has experienced in recent years (making it to the Sweet Sixteen once, the Elite Eight five times, and the NCAA Division III Championship game once since 2000-2001), the field hockey team’s success has been embraced by the campus and the community, as many as 700 fans showing up for games that often draw only parents at other schools.
“I believe to be a strong athletic woman on this campus is something admired and well respected,” says Nicky Pearson.
Success tends to beget success, but can they do it again?
“I’m thinking three-peat. Yah!” enthuses outgoing tri-captain Julia King. But then, come fall, King will be a conflicted position as a graduate assistant coach at Trinity under Nicky Pearson’s mentor Anne Parmenter.
With the extraordinary Class of 2009 graduating eight players, including seven starters, one might expect 2009 to be a building year for the Bowdoin field hockey team, but don’t try to tell them that.
“We’re obviously going to miss the graduating class of eight players who have been so instrumental in our success over the past four years,” says Coach Pearson. “We’re going to miss their talent and their leadership, but I’m incredibly excited about the group of returning players. They’ve had some wonderful experiences. And, because of the success the program has had, we have a talented incoming group of six players.”
“Even though we’re graduating eight, a lot of younger girls will be able to contribute,” insists Katie Herter. “They’re ready to go. Nicky’s made sure of that.”
“I believe to be a strong athletic woman on this campus is something admired and well respected.” —Nicky Pearson
No one had to tell Katie Herter ’12 about the impact that Taryn King, the All-American from the Class of 2007 whose sudden death in 2006 devastated her teammates, had had on the success of Bowdoin field hockey. Taryn King was one of the reasons Katie Herter wanted to play for Bowdoin.
“She was the same thing in high school,” says Herter of the inspirational King. “She just had this great work ethic.”
While they never played together, King and Herter have a lot in common. Both graduated from Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, and both come from prominent Bowdoin families.
Taryn King was preceded at Bowdoin by her great-grandfather, Leopold F. King ’22; her grandfather, Peter King ’50; her great-uncle Leopold Firman King ’51; her great-uncle, Dr. Denis Wholley King ’55; and her second cousins, Amy King DeMilt ’85 and Michael W. King ’88.
Katie Herter’s grandmother, Caroline Lee Herter, was a Trustee of the College, and her Bowdoin relations include her father, David Herter ’76; her mother, Lauren Tenney Herter ’82; and her brother James, a lacrosse player in the Class of 2011.
But Taryn King and Katie Herter had something else in common, more important than a prep school and a Bowdoin legacy. A fighting spirit. Guts.
Casey Bobo, who coached both King and Herter at Brooks, remembers both as being “part of a tremendous group of young women for whom being tough and strong was particularly ‘cool.’”
Coach Bobo recalls, for instance, how Taryn King once used an ice pack to keep her forehead cool before a game so her coach wouldn’t know she had a fever and keep her out of a big game.
“Her teammates knew she was sick, and that somehow made them play even harder as a testament to her dedication,” says Bobo. “We won that day. Taryn would never miss a game, and certainly her own physical discomfort would not keep her from supporting her teammates in competition.”
One of Casey Bobo’s key recollections of Katie Herter is how she struggled academically under the strain of “the most difficult course schedule I had ever seen.” Her coach, who is also a history teacher and was Herter’s advisor at Brooks, encouraged Herter to drop AP courses in favor of honors courses. Herter refused and persevered to earn, in her coach’s words, “ a tremendous GPA.”
“The harder the challenge, the more she fights,” says Casey Bobo. “Taryn had exactly that same spirit and determination. I absolutely adored that about both of them. While both girls were as talented as any female athlete we have had at Brooks School, it wasn’t always their talent that made us better. Their leadership by example made all of their teams better.”