VCU QUICKLY BECOMES HOME AWAY FROM HOME FOR ENGLAND NATIVE, BAKER
RICHMOND, Va. – A career that began in England has deep roots in the River City.
At the age of 11, Laura Baker gave field hockey a chance when a coach came to her school just outside of London for a training session. Ever since that day, VCU Field Hockey's associate head coach hasn't looked back.
A year later, Baker was playing on her school team where she met her mentor, Wally Peck. At 14, she was a member of England's National Team.
"It was a fantastic experience," Baker said. "It was just a great experience, playing with people that were so dedicated and so good at what they did."
She cross-crossed Europe while playing in the national team system from the U14 squad up until the U21 squad. She earned a silver medal at the 2006 U21 European championships in Sicily.
During her time with the English National Team, Baker quickly developed a love for travel. So, when she was recruited to play in the United States for VCU she liked the idea of living in a new place over 3,000 miles from home.
"I actually didn't look at any other schools," Baker said. "I just figured out where Richmond was and said "Yup, Let's go.""
In more than one way, the Rams were the big beneficiary of that decision.
In her four years as a player, Baker racked up over 3,300 minutes, the third most in school history. She finished her senior season with a 2.71 goal against average and capped off her time with the Rams with a degree in Business Administration in 2009.
But that didn't mean her time at VCU was over. Baker would soon enroll in VCU's Center for Sports Leadership (CSL). While in the program she would continue with the Rams' Field Hockey program, but as a graduate assistant coach.
When she made the switch over to coaching, Baker remembered the impact Peck had on her career and she wanted to have that influence on others.
"The way he brought the team together and it made us feel like we could do anything, even if we weren't the best team," said Baker. "I put everything down to that. If I hadn't had him as a coach, I don't think I would have carried on playing and gotten to where I am now."
During her first year on the sidelines, the Rams would nearly double their win total from the previous year. After earning her master's degree from the CSL, Baker still wasn't done, as she shifted into the assistant coach role with the program.
That team would go on to win 13 games, the most for the Rams in nearly 20 years. The win total would propel VCU into the conference tournament after an eight-year drought.
Baker credits the accomplishments of that year's team to their willingness to work hard.
"They wanted to do great things," Baker said. "As coaches, we embraced that and worked harder."
After the season, Baker decided to leave VCU and gain experience elsewhere, but it wasn't easy after six years with the Black and Gold.
"It was so difficult, being here for six years and playing was one of the hardest things. But I also felt I needed experience elsewhere."
She traveled up I-95 to become an assistant coach at La Salle. While with the Explorers Baker's team would reach the Atlantic 10 semi-finals. One of the biggest reasons for La Salle's big year was the play from goalkeeper Lisa Shaffer. At the end of the year, Shaffer led the conference in save percentage and was named to the conference all-rookie team.
Shortly after, Baker received a phone call from her friend and newly named VCU Head Coach Shannon Karl, who offered her a position on her coaching staff.
"Shannon and I always had that idea we would be able to coach together at some point," said Baker. "I felt like I got my experience at La Salle and it was a good time to come back to the Richmond bubble."
"When she left VCU, we'd always talked about getting the chance to coach together again. We didn't know the opportunity would come this soon, but I'm certainly glad it did," Karl added. "When I got the head coaching job here last November, she was the only person I wanted by my side helping to change the culture of this program. I wanted her to be a part of the program immediately, not only because she's an extremely talented coach, but because I wanted her to know how much she was valued here."
Quickly after that phone call, Baker was named associate head coach of the Rams.
"It's evident in looking at her track record, the kind of impact Baker has on the players and programs she works with," Karl said. "She's found great success across the board in playing and in coaching and has a real understanding of the game. Her high level playing experiences at home in England have really made her an asset in the states."
This season, the Rams stormed off to the first 7-0 start in school history. Baker believes most of the team's success is attributed to a change in culture.
"We're here to win championships, but we're also here to make sure the girls have an enjoyable four years and come out with something other than just hockey."
For Baker, it's the same way. She keeps in touch with her family via Skype and other multimedia forms. But she is anxious for this December, when she will have the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with her family for the first time in three years.
Although her family may not be from Richmond, Baker is firmly rooted in the city she now calls home.
Written by VCU Athletic Communications Student Assistant Scott Wyant