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NCAA D–III Field Hockey Finals: Coach inspires, awes Eagles

BEFORE PRACTICE earlier this week, University of Mary Washington field hockey coach Lindsey Elliott broke out the 2003 NCAA championship ring she won while playing at Salisbury University.

“That made it real for everybody,” senior co-captain Florence George said. “This is what we’re playing for. It hit home that we’re so close.”

    NCAA FIELD HOCKEY

    Division III final four

    At William Smith College (Geneva, N.Y.)

    Saturday’s semifinals

    DePauw, Ind. (21–1) vs. Tufts (17–2), 11 a.m.

    Mary Washington (20–1) vs. Montclair St. (21–1), 2

    Sunday’s championship

    Semifinal winners, 1 p.m.

    SEE ALSO: Team capsules

With two more victories this weekend in Geneva, N.Y., the third-ranked Eagles can bring home the first national title in program history. UMW’s best previous showing was a loss in the 1993 NCAA Division III final, when many of its current players were in diapers.

None of the current Eagles has been anywhere near this close to a crown. Their coach has—and that can’t hurt.

“If nothing else, it should get their respect,” said Dawn Chamberlin, who coached Elliott at Salisbury and now competes against her.

“She knows what she’s talking about. She’s won a national championship, so she knows what it takes to win it. If they’re smart, they’ll listen to her and execute her game plan.”

It’s worked pretty well so far. The Eagles (20–1) have won Capital Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles and two NCAA tournament games.

And they’ve started to take on the identity of their second-year coach, whom Chamberlin called “probably one of the most competitive people I know.”

That drive paid off during her playing career. Elliott was a two-time All-American at Salisbury, scoring 55 goals in four seasons. As a senior, she scored the game’s only goal in a national semifinal win over the College of New Jersey and tallied again in a 4–1 title-game victory over Middlebury.

After graduation, Elliott became an assistant at her alma mater and helped the Sea Gulls win two more national titles.

At UMW, she inherited a strong program that had endured just one losing record since 1989 and reached the ’93 NCAA final. Still, she saw the opportunity for more.

“I don’t want to say she had higher standards for us,” senior co-captain Amy Stevens said, “but she knows our potential. And when we don’t reach it, we hear about it.

“There’s no sugar-coating anything. She won’t let us settle for anything less than our best.”

One advantage Elliott has over her longtime predecessor, Dana Hall, is the ability to focus completely on her sport.

For 21 years, Hall split her attention between hockey in the fall and lacrosse in the spring. (Hall, whom Elliott calls “a great mentor,” still coaches lacrosse and has administrative duties.)

Before Elliott’s arrival, the Eagles’ off-season workouts were either self-directed or supervised by an assistant coach. Said Stevens: “They were less structured, and less fitness-related.”

With a full off-season of work behind them, the Eagles have come from behind to win several big games, including the CAC final against Wesley and last Sunday’s NCAA quarterfinal against Lynchburg.

“I consider us a second-half team because of our stamina,” Stevens said. Added George: “I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been.”

Like most coaches, Elliott would prefer it if her team didn’t continually need to rally from behind. But she sees it as good preparation for this weekend’s high stakes.

“We’ve been used to that in our last few games, unfortunately,” she said. “They’re used to having pressure—but it’s a good pressure to have, to win or go home.”

Elliott recalled fighting nerves in the title game nine years ago, “because at that point, it’s do or die. But at the same time, it’s good to know you’re one of just four teams left in Division III.”

She wants her current players to enjoy the same mix of confidence and butterflies this weekend. None of the other three semifinalists (DePauw, Montclair State or Tufts) has won a national championship, either.

So why not UMW?

The Eagles have already accomplished more than even they expected.

“It’s a surprise,” George said. “At the beginning of the season we made goals, like every team has: to win the conference and the [CAC] tournament.

“Our final goal was to win the national title. We kind of laughed it off. Now it’s such a reachable goal. But it never crossed my mind in August that on Nov. 14 I’d be practicing.”

Her coach probably had no other plans for that day.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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