‘We’re going to keep climbing’: Exploring Duke field hockey's unexpected rise to national stardom

Duke field hockey huddles up after its 2022 loss to UNC.
Duke field hockey huddles up after its 2022 loss to UNC.

Rain or shine, Duke huddles up.

After every game, practice or scrimmage the players gather in a circle to stretch. The cool-down routine isn’t a new sight to anyone who has played a sport. It’s seen across many fields, in many sports and in many stadiums. What isn’t seen everywhere is the combination of brutal honesty and praise that is exchanged in this particular circle. 

Win or loss, the players go around and share their thoughts on what just transpired on the field. While they usually shout out something good another teammate did, they are also not afraid to mention what they think the team needs to work on.

“We did it here and there last year … but it’s become a tradition after every game this year, win or loss,” former captain Hannah Miller told The Chronicle. “It’s just a way to settle ourselves.”

This simple tradition might be the root of Duke’s complete 180 from last season.

In the 2022 season, the Blue Devils capped their season with a 7-11 record. They went 0-6 in the conference and lost in the first game of the ACC tournament. 

Duke last had a winning record in 2019, 13-8, and even then didn’t capture more than one ACC win. Now, sitting at No. 2 in the nation, undefeated in the ACC and with only one loss on the season, the Blue Devils seemingly came out of nowhere.

But the pieces have been there all along.

From the coaches

From the 2022 to 2023 seasons, Duke only added five new players to the roster, including four freshmen and one graduate transfer. According to head coach Pam Bustin, corner penalties are the only facet of play that has improved due to roster changes.

“We have some good weapons now,” Bustin said. “It’s really fun for me because they allow me to be more creative in what we need to do against our opponents.” 

Sophomore Alaina McVeigh, who was out with an injury last year, has been a key part of the Blue Devil’s offense this season, especially on corner play. The Landsdale, Pa., native has 12 goals so far, scoring in every game but three.

Still, the current roster is majority an older team, with steady leaders like graduate forward Miller, graduate back Mary Harkins and senior goalie Piper Hampsch spending their entire collegiate careers at Duke. The answer, then, to the Blue Devils’ newfound success can’t really be found in roster additions. 

“It’s an answer that people don’t really like to hear anymore … everyone likes it quick and fixed,” Bustin said. “A year ago, we were playing really good hockey. We were playing really good hockey with essentially the same core of kids, the same team.”

The transition to winning ways has been, for Bustin, a two-year process and anything but quick. After going 6-11 and 0-6 in the ACC during the 2021 season, the spring of 2022 was focused on building individual player confidence.

“Off the field, we had to work on what we were doing while away from the team, what we were doing to improve our individual confidence … and then finally connection,” Bustin said. “That takes a lot of time, and it does translate to the field. But we weren’t there yet.” 

With the struggles continuing last season, the Blue Devils spent the spring of 2023 transforming their new individual confidences into team confidence.  

“We focused more on hockey stuff … What kind of style are we going to play? What kind of identity are we going to have on the field? We had already worked on our identity off the field. And everybody could sense it,” Bustin said.

The transition to team confidence and cohesion on the field rested on the development of one thing: Being uncomfortable.

After identifying technical areas of improvement, the coaching staff would confront the players with potential difficult scenarios on the field. 

“It wasn’t us spoon-feeding it to them,” Bustin said. The coaches would give guiding principles, but leave the communication and problem-solving to the players. “We [had] to get on the field and challenge the cultural work that we did.”

Doing everything to try and frustrate their players, the coaching staff even intentionally made bad calls during scrimmages simply “to make them uncomfortable and compete with one another and show how we react to adversity.”

The potential for confrontation during practice clearly paid off, as Duke has been firing on all cylinders both offensively and defensively. In 2022, the Blue Devils recorded 2.28 offensive goals per game, while holding their opponents to 2.11. Duke has improved on both of these aspects in 2023 — keeping in mind that field hockey is a low-scoring game — as they currently score an average of 2.92 goals per game while now allowing an average of just one. Compounded with a sharp increase in shots per game, from 13.0 to 14.5, and a decrease in opponents' shots per game, 9.9 to 7.5, Duke has improved across the board.

By the players

Even the work that happened on the turf really happened in the locker room and off the field. As Duke focused on building up individual confidence, the ability to translate it to actual field hockey rested in the players’ ability to open up to one another. 

Captains Hampsch, Charlie van Oirschot and Barb Civitella understand the pulse of the locker room over at Jack Katz Stadium, but they don’t control it, rather opting to lead the team through example. 

“I knew, even last year as captain, that I wanted to be someone who was leading, but also encouraged others to lead as well,” Hampsch said. “It wasn’t an end-all be-all, one person or three people that were going to lead this team to victory. It was those two or three people empowering others to want to lead and want to take responsibility for what happens on this field.” 

By empowering their teammates to take responsibility for what happens on the field, the Blue Devils built up their confidence that their teammates would support them even if they didn’t succeed. 

The key to this? Reminding themselves that they are not perfect. As they gather in a circle after every practice and game, the players remind themselves that not only do they all support each other, but that they sometimes have to confront each other in order to take responsibility for what occurs on the field. 

While the team occasionally gathered after disappointing losses last season to discuss positives, the tradition was solidified during the 2023 preseason. 

“After every practice, we’d circle to do our cooldown and ask a random question,” Hampsch said. By ensuring that everyone shared their favorite food, ideal vacation or childhood dreams, the team cultivated an environment where everyone felt comfortable speaking up.

“That regimen of everyone sharing and everyone coming up with ideas, making sure you’re listening to everyone, carried over to when it really matters in more serious things such as what’s going on on the field and what we want to bring to it,” Hampsch said.

Putting it to the test

It’s undeniable that Duke plays in one of the best conferences in collegiate field hockey, featuring powerhouses like Louisville and dynasty North Carolina.

“I hope that nobody likes to play us. We were still a very dangerous team last year,” Bustin said. “We were dangerous, but we didn’t have the edge that we do now, the confidence that we have now.” 

The Blue Devils, unbeaten in the ACC, have already exceeded their conference successes from past seasons. However, with No. 5 Louisville slated for Friday afternoon and No. 3 North Carolina on Oct. 27, Duke has its two strongest opponents down the road. 

It’s not as if the Blue Devils haven't already toppled ranked teams this season, with wins against then-No. 3 Maryland, No. 9 Liberty and No. 6 Syracuse. Their only loss this season is to Northwestern, ranked No. 2 during their match and now ranked at the very top of the nation.

After losing in the first round of the ACC tournament last year to an unranked Wake Forest, Duke now finds itself the highest-ranked team in the conference. But that is not necessarily enough for this ambitious squad of Blue Devils.

“[No. 2] isn’t where we’re settling, we’re going to keep climbing,” Miller said.

Duke field hockey has been working with the same puzzle pieces this season as in past years, except for one thing: The circle. The team gathers after every game or practice, exercising honesty and confrontation — and it’s working. While the team continues to work tirelessly on the field, it’s the off-field honesty and confidence that seemingly has led to the unexpected success.

“We have all decided to get in the same boat, and all decided to row in the same direction. That takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of convincing,” Bustin said. 

Though the hardest challenges still await the Blue Devils, armed with their circle, they might just row all the way to a championship.


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