BACK FROM THE BRINK: VCU FIELD HOCKEY TURNING HEADS
By Chris Kowalczyk
Shortly after she was named interim head coach of the VCU Field Hockey program in November of 2006, then-24-year-old Kelly McQuade had an opportunity to assess the state of the Rams' affairs.
The news was grim. Her recruiting file contained exactly one name. The 2007 schedule included only the Colonial Athletic Association slate, which the league prepares. The previous season, the Rams had finished 4-15, their 11th losing season in 13 years. She had served as an assistant with VCU during that disastrous 2005 season, but only now was she beginning to fully realize the scope of the program's despair.
"I don't think I was made privy to the disarray that it actually was," McQuade said. "I was unaware of a lot of things that were going on, whether that be scholarship budgets, the schedule. Recruiting took a long time to get established."
"I HAD FEAR THAT THE PROGRAM WAS GOING TO GET DROPPED"
It's tough for Pat Stauffer to quietly watch a VCU Field Hockey match. Administrator or not, she's probably been emotionally tethered to the program longer than anyone else.
Stauffer was the Rams' first Division I head coach and led the program to a 137-112-14 record from 1981-93. She produced nine winning records in 13 seasons. In 1994, as planned, she moved into administration. She currently serves as an associate athletic director and senior women's administrator (SWO) for VCU Athletics.
VCU hired Debra Brickey as Stauffer's replacement in 1994. However, after a 7-10 campaign, Brickey left to accept the Northwestern head coaching position. Recruiting suffered as a result, and the program began to sink into an abyss. The Rams finished 3-16, 2-18 and 2-18 in 1995, '96, and '97, respectively.
"It's a spiral," Stauffer said. "What kills you is then you get the moniker that it's a bad job and once you get the bad job moniker…it's hard to dispel that. I think that was a big part of our struggle."
By the late 1990's, some people viewed the program as hopeless.
"I had fear that the program was going to get dropped," Stauffer said. "There was an administrator, when and if we were to add another sport – I'm an advocate for women's lacrosse – and this person said, well, then we'd just have another field hockey. That hurt. That was when I thought there was a real possibility the program would just be dropped to make the problem go away."
"IT WAS A LITTLE BIT CHAOTIC"
Despite her youth, McQuade impressed VCU Director of Athletics Norwood Teague during her six months under the interim tag. In June of 2007, he handed McQuade the keys to the program, full time.
"I wanted her to feel it out and see how she did, and the more time went on, it became crystal clear that we needed to hire her full time," Teague said. "She just knows how to manage a program. That can be an art. Some people have it, some people don't."
That's not to say that McQuade coasted through those first few months. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In addition to recruiting and scheduling, the program lagged behind in a number of other areas, everything from fitness to discipline.
"It was a little bit chaotic," McQuade, a 2004 William & Mary graduate, said. "There was a lack of structure and lack of accountability and things along that line. There were a lot of things off the field that needed to be addressed.
"I'm big on accountability. I'm big on doing what you need to do, and this is a team sport, so if you're not doing what you need to, it affects everybody. It was the case those first couple of years that I was [hard on them]. I didn't let anybody get away with anything because they had to know I meant business."
"WE HAD TO BE SALES PEOPLE FOR A WHILE"
Once McQuade had Teague's stamp of approval, she needed an assistant and reached out to former teammate Shannon Karl, who was all 22-years old at the time. Both had played under legendary William & Mary coach Peel Hawthorne, an experience which helped offset their relative youth.
The recruiting situation at VCU at the time was dire, a problem that McQuade and Karl wouldn't be able to fix overnight.
"Recruiting took a long time to get established," McQuade said. "You have to do things two or three years in advance, so we were behind the curve for the first couple of years."
There were several notable roadblocks along the way. First and foremost was VCU's tradition, or lack thereof. Between 1993 and 2001, the Rams were a combined 5-44 in CAA matches.
In addition, with a combined age of 46 years old, McQuade and Karl were, no doubt, one of the youngest field hockey staffs in the country. Rather than allow age be a detriment, they used it to their advantage. No staff could relate to their players like McQuade and Karl, which proved to be a big selling point.
"The fact that we were a young coaching staff helped a lot as well, because when I called Shannon and brought her on, we were young, we were motivated, we had tons of passion and were very excited for the possibilities," McQuade said.
The duo spent two years making inroads on the recruiting trail before the tide began to turn. While the Rams were becoming more competitive on the field through hard work and discipline, they had to get more athletic and talented.
In 2008, they signed an eight-player class that immediately yielded five starters. After back-to-back five win campaigns in 2007 and 2008, the Rams finished 8-9 in 2009, their best mark in five years.
Sophomore Chelsea Hill was ready to commit to James Madison and had offers from William & Mary and Iowa before a letter from VCU persuaded her to give the school a look.
"I visited a lot of colleges, and the coaches here are, by far, the best I've met anywhere," Hill said. "It's like being a part of a family. They want to push us in field hockey, but they're also there for us in other aspects. I feel like if I ever had a problem I could go to Kelly and Shannon and they would help me out with anything, regardless of field hockey."
Hill became VCU's first commitment of that 2009 class, which also included high school All-American Kelsey Scherrer and Megan Botteri, a member of the USA Field Hockey National Indoor team. VCU was starting to turn heads.
"We really had to be sales people for a while and sell them on this idea that we have a great vision, we're dedicated and determined to be here," McQuade said. "I think a lot of girls gravitated to the younger coaching staff and the fact that we were here to prove something, so they can kind of rally behind that."
"THEY'RE DUTCH. HOW BAD COULD THEY BE?"
In 2006, McQuade was in need of a lucky break. She had just embarked on an enormous rebuilding project, and frankly, she needed bodies.
Under the previous staff, VCU had recruited extensively in The Netherlands, a field hockey hotbed. Twins Marle and Flore van Dessel had seen VCU coaches distributing flyers at a field hockey match in 2005 and contacted McQuade.
McQuade conferred with Stauffer and the two decided they didn't have anything to lose.
"We just said, well, they're Dutch, how bad could they be," Stauffer said.
Sight unseen, the van Dessel twins arrived at VCU the following August as walk-ons. It didn't take long for McQuade and Karl to realize they'd found a couple of diamonds in the rough.
"We were really lucky with them," McQuade said. "Once we started practicing, I was like, okay, alright. I was really excited about it."
Now seniors, Marle and Flore have combined for 37 goals and 27 assists in their careers and supplied a measure of hope to a program that desperately needed a shot in the arm. This season, younger sibling Rymme, potentially the best player in the family, joined her sisters on VCU's roster.
"It's been so much fun having them on the team," McQuade said. "It's a relief knowing they want it as bad as we do, and they just put in such hard work to get there."
In her first match as a college head coach, McQuade led the Rams to a 4-1 victory over Fairfield on Aug. 25, 2007. Despite the auspicious start, VCU lost 27 of its next 36 matches.
Finally, the Rams began to see results in the win column in 2009. VCU opened the year 4-0, including a stunning overtime victory at 17th-ranked Iowa, the Rams' first win over a ranked opponent in six years. VCU finished the season 8-9, albeit with a 1-6 record in CAA play. It was the program's most wins since 2004.
As much as McQuade liked the progress she was seeing, the Rams couldn't seem to pull out a close game. During one stretch, VCU lost nine consecutive overtime games.
"It's very difficult mentally to handle all those overtime losses," she said. "You set to overtime and you feel you've already lost because you've never won. It was a challenge for us to keep them all positive."
Finally, on Sept. 8, Flore van Dessel scored on a penalty stroke in overtime to hand the Rams a 2-1 win over Richmond snap the dubious streak.
"We absolutely 100 percent needed that," McQuade said. "We need it to go that way for us and it just kind of reinstated the fact for us again that what we're doing is working."
VCU ripped off victories in five of its next seven games, two of those in overtime. On Friday, Oct. 8, Scherrer tipped a feed from Marle van Dessel to give the Rams a 4-3 victory over James Madison. The thrilling finish set off a raucous celebration that could be described as cathartic as much as it was jubilant.
It was VCU's first win over the Dukes since 2004 and improved the Rams, picked eighth in the CAA Preseason Poll, to 9-4, including 4-1 in league play. The Rams haven't reached the CAA Tournament since 2003, but are currently sitting in second place. VCU has also been receiving votes in the NFHCA Top-20 Coaches Poll each week, inching towards a previously inconceivable national ranking.
After years of darkness, VCU appears headed for a winning season for just the second time since 1993, and the future appears bright. Seventeen of VCU's 20 players this season are freshmen or sophomores.
"It's been exhausting," McQuade said. "These four years have been long, but I'm glad. It makes me appreciate so it much more now that I'm here and getting the results that I knew we could."