By Braden Layer
Denison Sports Information Assistant
The 2011 edition of Big Red field hockey was one for the history books, as Denison marched toward its first NCAC tournament championship and first appearance in the NCAA Division III tournament since 2000. Coach P.J. Soteriades was named NCAC coach of the year, leading her team to an 18-2 record last fall and avenging a regular season loss at Depauw in the NCAC title game.
One season later, Denison's reputation has changed dramatically among its league foes.
No longer content merely challenging for a berth in the NCAC tournament, the Big Red turned an important corner last season. As a result, Denison is dealing with the added pressures that come from a conference championship. They have effectively gone from the hunters, to the hunted.
"There's a huge target on our back, everyone's gunning for us," Soteriades said. "We have to focus on the here and now."
Though they have played with a bullseye on their backs, this season started in similar fashion to the 2011 campaign. The Big Red stormed out of the gates, winning each of their first five matches. Only two weeks in, it appeared that the team was once again the class of the NCAC.
"When we are on and playing together and not individually, we cannot be stopped," senior Catie Merrick said.
Then again, it's tough to repeatedly take the best effort from opposing teams every night, looking for marquee victories, and come out on top. Following a 4-3 overtime victory against Randolph-Macon, the 2012 campaign would hit its first significant speed bump. On the road against a nationally ranked Christopher Newport squad, Denison suffered a 4-1 setback.
"They are 13th in the nation, but it was good for us," Soteriades stated. "It teaches you where your holes are, and what you need to improve on."
Just four days later, the Big Red would endure their first losing streak in nearly two years of competition. Kenyon handed Denison a 3-1 loss, and perennial Midwest power Depauw won a 1-0 battle to push the losing streak to three.
Although they were suddenly just two games above .500, Soteriades believed her team had still shown flashes of greatness, and was confident that the squad would respond.
"We lost to Depauw, but I feel we played one of our best games," she said. "We have a lot of season left."
Shouldering the bulk of responsibility to shake off those mid-season woes and again contend for an NCAC title is a senior class that has unquestionably elevated expectations in Granville. The Big Red seniors have seen a steady improvement from their first season, and Merrick says the tight-knit group has worked hard to build momentum and direct attention toward the program.
"When we arrived the team had struggled in the past couple seasons," she said, "and we instilled a hard work ethic to our program that success will come with dedication."
A work ethic that has garnered plenty of accolades for Merrick and her talented senior class. Merrick earned second team All-NCAC distinctions last fall, and goalie Brittany Benson was named the defensive player of the year, leading the conference in shutouts (11), goals against average (.68) and save percentage (.869). Rounding out the senior All-NCAC nods was Katherine Ireland, who earned a spot on the honorable mention team from her defensive position.
"Their impact to this program has been immense," Soteriades asserted. "They have left a legacy of what it takes to not only be a successful team, but a united team, and that's just as important as any outcome."
Under their leadership, Denison has found some footing in the second half of its season, showing fire as the race for the NCAC tournament heats up. Winning three of their next four games, the Big Red have improved to 8-4 overall, and a solid 6-3 conference record.
In the most recent, a 6-3 win over Oberlin on October 5th, Merrick had a hand in all six goals, accounting for a career high nine points. The losing streak now a thing of the past, Merrick said the team uses it as motivation.
"We use those losses as learning experiences and make sure we take advantage of them to better ourselves everyday," she said. "There is no doubt in our minds that we are going to come up on top."
Seven games remain, with Denison getting a second crack at a pair of NCAC teams that scored early season upsets in Kenyon and Depauw. Unlike last year, there are no teams running away with the regular season title, meaning each game holds increasing importance.
"We have to be worried about what we're doing, more so than what other teams are doing," Soteriades said. "We have to highlight our strengths, if we do, we have a great opportunity."
It appears Denison has gotten accustomed to its role as the defending champs, able to successfully rebound from a mid-season slump. The top four teams advance to the single elimination NCAC tournament, and the Big Red currently fall in third place. With virtually five teams vying for four slots, Denison is hoping the experience of a talented and devoted group of seniors will guide it to another postseason berth.
"This year, it's going to be a very tight run to the finish," Soteriades said. "But we've been there before and we can do it again."