September 5, 2012

Steve Solloway: Bowdoin's field hockey of dreams

Virtually unrecognized outside its fan base, the most successful college sports team in Maine appreciates the support, though it deserves far more.

BRUNSWICK — Kayla Lessard and Cathleen Smith can remember the police escort through town and noisy crowd waiting on campus for the new national champion field hockey team to return. But they choose not to remember.

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Cathleen Smith is the co-captain of the Bowdoin field hockey team that’s simply the most successful college sports team in the state. By far.

Courtesy Bowdoin College

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Kayla Lessard, co-captain with Cathleen Smith of the Bowdoin field hockey team, is also the goalie on the women’s hockey team.

"It seems so disconnected right now," said Lessard, the Bowdoin College goalkeeper. "It was two years ago. Half the (current) team wasn't on that bus. There are still two classes without rings. They don't know what it feels like."

Telling stories about the recent past won't help this Bowdoin team win its fourth national title since 2007. Reputation alone won't get Bowdoin back to the NCAA Division III tournament. Winning does that.

Bowdoin opens its season at home Saturday. Wesleyan stands in the way of tacking another victory onto the Polar Bears' 23-game home winning streak. Have you made plans to be at Howard F. Ryan Field for the noon start?

Didn't think so.

After winning the first national title in 2007, Bowdoin added a second in 2008. The third came in 2010, telling anyone who bothered to check that Coach Nicky Pearson's program is no flash in the pan. In the National Field Hockey Coaches Association preseason poll, Bowdoin ranks second behind last year's national champion, College of New Jersey.

Speaking of rankings, Bowdoin was third in the 2011 NCAA Division III field hockey attendance report, averaging 273 fans for 13 home games. Don't snicker. Apparently, 200 can sound like 2,000 at Bowdoin when Lessard makes another save or Smith scores another goal.

"It's electric," said Sarah McMahon, a professor of American history at Bowdoin and the faculty liaison since 2005. One of her students who played on the team asked McMahon if she would take that position.

McMahon had to tell her that she'd never watched a field hockey game before. Would that be OK? It was. Early in her new role, McMahon met the mother of another player at a game. "She gave me a 70-minute commentary. It was amazing what I learned. Now I watch just to see phenomenal field hockey."

Bowdoin, like many small campuses, is a close community. McMahon supports other Bowdoin teams. She's also the faculty liaison to the men's and women's tennis teams. But watching field hockey has become a passion.

"It's the cheering," said Smith. "It doesn't stop. The fans bring a lot of energy to the field. We feel it."

Smith is a senior captain from Larchmont, N.Y., just outside New York City. She was the team's leading scorer last season with 17 goals and 6 assists. A former soccer player.

"I had to decide between the two. I chose field hockey. I wish I had a good reason why to give you. Field hockey is more challenging. You have to think more."

Lessard grew up in Enfield, Conn., near the border with Massachusetts. She's also the goalie on the women's hockey team.

"In field hockey you have to be aggressive. It's a bigger net. I was taught to be patient in hockey."

In 19 field hockey games last year, Lessard had a 0.64 goals-against average. She's aggressive on turf.

The captains are two of the five seniors on the team. Their cumulative record is 49-6 overall and 6-1 in the NCAA tourney.

Bowdoin won three national field hockey titles in four years. By any measure the Polar Bears are the most successful college team in Maine. And virtually unrecognized outside their passionate fan base of hundreds. In this part of the world, field hockey is a women's sport.

Lessard, Smith and their teammates love the support of their devoted fans, not realizing they and their teammates deserve more.

About 15 minutes into our conversation, Smith became restless. Practice started in another 15 minutes nearby. She left the room to check the time. As captains, she and Lessard had to be at practice early. There is no comfort zone here.

Are the expectations too weighty? Lessard shook her head no. "It's exciting. We work on getting better. We like playing the big games. It's always nice to be confident. But Coach reminds us to enjoy this win (and every other) on Thanksgiving Day."

Lessard grins. She knows how to give thanks.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

Twitter: SteveSolloway


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