Oct. 30, 2006
Ask any student-athlete or any coach from any team what the postseason means to them and most will probably refer to it as a "new" season. Ask any student-athlete or coach from the 2001 Michigan field hockey squad and they will show you the proof on their ring finger.
Despite finishing third in the Big Ten regular season standings and falling out of Big Ten Tournament play in the second round, the Wolverines found both themselves and a little fate in the new season and accomplished what no other women's program had done in Ann Arbor - a national championship.
Prior to all the postseason glory, Michigan endured a tough regular season despite being ranked in the nation's top 10. The No. 7 Wolverines finished the season third in the conference at 4-2 and with an overall mark of 18-5. They suffered setbacks against No. 3 Wake Forest, No. 4 North Carolina and No. 15 Penn State, but none more devastating than a 3-0 loss to No. 9 Ohio State in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
After its defeat in the conference tournament, Michigan was now without the automatic bid to the NCAA Championship. Although the Wolverines were forced to play the waiting game on what their future might hold, they remained hopeful and determined. The squad gathered together and made a unanimous decision to fight for their season and to achieve their ultimate goal of winning a national championship. Luckily for the Maize and Blue, the postseason became that new season and offered an opportunity to start fresh after being invited to the NCAA Championship as an at-large selection.
And not only did the committee acknowledge the talent of the Michigan squad with its at-large bid, but they awarded the Wolverines the chance to host first round action.
Ann Arbor, Mich.
"I think there will naturally be a home field advantage because we know when we step on the field, we'll have a raucous crowd cheering on our team. The support in Michigan for field hockey is tremendous, particularly in southeastern Michigan. Youth field hockey in the Ann Arbor area has been in place for more than 20 years so we are thrilled to help support (and build the interest by hosting this tournament)."
And so the journey began, or as then-senior captain Ali Balmer put it, this was the point when it "seemed as though fate had taken over."
Fate may have played a part in the Wolverines first-round game as they were paired against North Carolina, a team that had given them two of their five losses during the regular season. Despite the setbacks, the players felt a profound advantage playing at their own Phyllis Ocker Field in front of their family, friends and fellow student-athletes. After a scoreless first-half tie against the fourth-ranked Tarheels, Michigan stormed out of halftime to post a 5-2 upset over North Carolina.
"Upsetting North Carolina was the turning point of our season," Balmer said. "From that point on we had the confidence and drive that we needed for the remainder of the tournament."
It wasn't just the players that felt this good fortune. Current head coach Nancy Cox, an assistant on the 2001 team, recalled the advantage of playing the first-round games in Ann Arbor.
"There is a natural home field advantage," Cox said. "The support for field hockey is tremendous, particularly in southeast Michigan. We know when we step on the field, we'll have a raucous crowd cheering on our team."
The home field advantage continued to work magic for the Wolverines as they beat intrastate rival Michigan State in overtime, 2-1, to advance to the national semifinals, which were held in the Midwest for the first time ever. Although Michigan had to travel for the next round of games, they still felt as if they were back home. Kent State was the host institution of the 2001 NCAA Championship, so Kent, Ohio was just a few hours away from the Wolverines.
Cox noted that the team felt destiny was on its side when they entered the stadium for the first time.
"I remember walking into the venue and seeing our colors, Maize and Blue and believing that destiny was ours," Cox said referring to Kent State's colors of blue and gold.
With a 4-2 victory over No. 6 Princeton in the national semifinal, several others outside the U-M field hockey clan started believing that maybe these Wolverines are destined for something great.
Whether it was their destiny or just a little fate, the Wolverines knew they had to fight for every opportunity in order to conquer top-seeded Maryland in the title game. This was an opportunity not only to win a national championship, but also to seek revenge from the Terrapins, who had defeated the Wolverines in the 1999 national title game.
The championship match itself was vigorous. Michigan suffered an early blow when then-sophomore defenseman Stephanie Johnson was taken out of the game after being hit in the face on a Maryland penalty corner. Johnson returned for the second half, only to later learn that she had fractured her jaw in three places. The Wolverines continued to battle as goaltender Maureen Tasch made seven saves in the first half to keep the Terrapins scoreless. Within the last moments of the half, 2001 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Adrienne Hortillosa tipped in a pass to put the Wolverines up, 1-0. At halftime, the current battle had Johnson recalling the Wolverines' first championship game in 1999.
"I remember how the game-winning goal [for Maryland] came on a ball that we had all given up on," said Johnson. "We knew in this particular game that we had to play the whole 70 minutes in order to win."
Shortly after intermission, sophomore Kristi Gannon added another goal to give Michigan a small but distinct 2-0 lead that would carry to the end of the game. The Wolverines were able to hold off the Maryland attack to take home the first ever women's national championship title in school history.
The thrilling end to the season is still a vivid memory for several of the players.
"I remember wishing the last five minutes would pass by faster," Hortillosa said.
Balmer added, "Coach Cox saw me and yelled, `Keep playing! Stay in the game!' I can remember turning around and watching the clock count down for what seemed like hours! For the final seconds of the game, all that you could hear from the stands was, "It's great...to be...a Michigan Wolverine!" Those final seconds of the game will stay with me forever."
What will also stay with the former players forever is the fact that they were part of the first team in U-M women's history to obtain that ultimate goal.
"Being a national champion means that all the sacrifice and hard work during the year really did mean something and that nothing is impossible." Hortillosa said. "It meant being a part of history and being able to make a difference in the Michigan field hockey program."
Not only had the team started a new history in Michigan athletics, but it was done in a way in which everyone involved competed with a hard working, blue-collar mentality. When asked what made the 2001 team and its season so special, the responses were all the same. Simply put, the team was truly a team. There were no superstars. Just a great group of hard-working friends committed to the program, reliant on one another, which let it all out on the field for each of the 70 minutes. And while the team may attribute a little fate or destiny to its national championship run, the hard work and dedication of each person involved resulted in the program's finest hour to date.
That dedication still shows today as several student-athletes from the 2001 team have remained in the sport and are now coaching from the sidelines. Gannon and April Franzoni are active members of the US Women's National Team, while Balmer, Jessica Rose, Kate Dillon and Molly Maloney are just a few who continue their involvement with field hockey. Tracey Fuchs, a volunteer assistant for Michigan in 2001, currently serves as the Wolverines' associate head coach under Cox.
And it is Cox, along with several other players asked to recall a memorable moment from the 2001 season, that point to the gratifying words of then-head coach Marcia Pankratz.
"I will never forget Marcia's very poignant words to the team," Cox said. "She said, `For the rest of your lives you will be a national champion, the first for any women's program at Michigan, and no one can take that away from you.'".
Those words have certainly stuck with Johnson, a member of the 2001 NCAA All-Tournament squad along with teammates Fronzoni, Gannon, Hortillosa and goalkeeper Maureen Tasch
"(Winning the national championship) is why you compete for Michigan," Johnson said. "You want to be the best and for a time that season, we were."
That time may not have been during the regular season. It may not have been during the Big Ten Tournament. But with the help of a little fate, the "new season" turned out to be the right time for the Wolverines to make first-time history.
Related 25th Anniversary Articles: NCAA Champions - 2001 Michigan Field Hockey