With nine minutes left to play in its game against Sacred Heart, field hockey huddled before taking a penalty corner and formulated a plan.
Following a quick cheer, sophomore midfielder Kelsey Farkas headed to the goal line, placed the ball, and got ready to send it.
The Lions ran their play, and first-year midfielder Brooke Gasser took a shot, which was saved by Sacred Heart. One minute later, Farkas, Gasser and three other players were out of the game, substituted for five new players who promptly created a penalty corner opportunity of their own.
This is a staple of head coach Caroline Nelson-Nichols’ “team attack, team defense” philosophy, and the coach utilizes this rotation in every game to ensure that every player sees playing time.
“We consider ourselves 22 strong,” Nelson-Nichols says.
When Nelson-Nichols took over, she inherited a program that stuck to a more traditional, less substitution playing style. Assistant coach Katie DeSandis, CC ’13, a former Columbia field hockey player herself, notes the differences between Nelson-Nichols’ approach to the game and the coaching staff under which she played.
“Before, [the approach] was very much a structured, “in-your-line” type of thing—like I’m a defender, I’m going to stay a defender. But you want to try and get numbers up. So now it’s more of, how can I join the play?” she remarks.
This new mentality has clearly influenced the team’s play, as all the players sprint to get back on defense when the other team gains possession and get ahead of the ball when a teammate pushes toward the goal on attack.
Gasser, who has played in every game this season, noted that Nelson-Nichols’ practices have prioritized making every player comfortable playing in every position.
“We have done certain drills in which the defense is outletting and playing attack and attack has to defend us,” Gasser said. “[Nelson-Nichols] makes sure that everyone gets a piece of the defense in practice which then translates to games.”
In fact, Nelson-Nichols’ team approach to the game is one of the reasons that Gasser was drawn to Columbia in the first place.
“I really appreciated her making that statement across the board, that it’s everyone’s responsibility, it’s a team thing not on an individual basis,” Gasser said.
The first-years, led by Gasser, have especially shined this season, accounting for nine goals and nine assists so far. They have played 69 minutes per game on average this season, while the seniors have played an average of 75 minutes per game this year.
One senior, forward Danielle Buttinger, praised this trend.
“I think with this team mentality, I’ve seen the first-years have grown exponentially from the beginning of the season till the end right now,” senior forward Danielle Buttinger said. “Just getting team time, team touches in the game, I think you really can start owning your role.”
With the frequent substitutions, it is critical that the team is in constant communication with one another. Because every line consists of players of every age, according to Buttinger, the older players direct traffic on the line in order to help facilitate the positional switches and substitutions.
This communication is vital to developing a foundation going forward. If only upperclassmen were to play, the newer players would like not receive as many chances to learn from experience.
The opportunity to learn is important. The strength of every player, from the first-years to the seniors, is vital to the team’s success.
When asked how she formulated this new everyone-is-involved mentality, Nelson-Nichols says, “It’s just a belief that I’ve always had that it takes every single person on your team to get a W, and it takes every single person on your team to get a loss.”
Game minutes seem to prove that the coaching staff is dedicated to this belief, as a lion’s share of the players have seen more than 30 minutes of action per game this season, with most playing upwards of 50.
“At the end of the day, the team drives it,” Nelson-Nichols says. “So we help set a navigation point, but the team is the one that’s bought in, and the team is the one putting in the work and the team is the one really driving the ship.”
As for the team’s performance this season, it has tallied a 2-4 record in Ancient Eight play. While it has struggled at times, the underclassmen have accrued valuable experience that should pay dividends going forward.
“It’s a baby-step process,” DeSandis said. “It’s a bit of a cool progression to see over the past two years and then next year it’s going to be even more of a build-off of the previous two.”
DeSandis has experienced both playing styles, albeit on different sides of the sideline and believes that the first-years will have a leg-up over players at other schools who don’t get to see as much playing time this early in their careers. The coaching staff and players both believe that the new system is going to help the program find great success in the future.
“I think being in a game just gives you that much more experience and you know what to do in other game like situations,” Gasser says. “I think it’s really going to impact my playing throughout my 4 years.”
With Gasser and her teammates seeing plenty of the field this season, Nelson-Nichols and company are optimistic that this system will produce the team’s first-ever Ivy League championship—sooner, perhaps, than imagined.