Culture And Relationships: A Deeper Look Into How Louisville Field Hockey Has Become A National Powerhouse

After reaching the NCAA tournament semifinals for the first time in program history last May, the University of Louisville field hockey team have once again establish themselves as a title contender. The Cardinals sport an 11-2 record thus far, with the only losses coming to the top-two squads in the country (Iowa and Michigan). For Head Coach Justine Sowry, the program’s gradual rise throughout her 11-year tenure has been the product of a noteworthy culture. A deeper dive into Louisville’s core roots will reveal character, hard work, relationships, and a driving hunger.

“Culture is first and foremost at the top of the list, but I’ve made some mistakes along the way”, Sowry admitted. “When we made the transition into the ACC, I made some mistakes of prioritizing talent over character at times. Now, I take great pride in making sure that I know the players much better before offering a spot on the team, and knowing their families as well. I want good young women that will be great teammates and want to be apart of something bigger than themselves.”

Sowry’s mindset has not only shifted in recruiting, but in coaching in general. “When I first started my (coaching) career, my philosophy was a reflection of the way that I was coached”, she explained. “As a player, I just did what I was told and there were no questions asked. Now, in the past five-to-six years, things have changed so much that you cannot coach like that anymore. It’s more about the relationship-building and earning the trust of your players.”

Before she joined the program as an assistant coach in 2008, Sowry spent her time as a young adult playing the Australian women’s national field hockey team. Born in Whyalla, South Australia, she recorded 128 international caps as a goalkeeper, winning a pair of World Cups and competing at the Olympics (2996 and 2000).

Along the journey, Sowry befriended many American field hockey players, one being former Louisville head coach Pam Bustin.

“We would play against one another quite a lot”, Sowry said. “She had just gotten the job here (Louisville) in 1998, and she approached me with the opportunity of doing some coaching. So, for four years, I would play at home for 10 months, and coach at Louisville for two months. To be able to have a job coaching a sport that you love, you can only do that here in America.”

Sowry’s experiences as a decorated player within the sport have in turn, aided her in her coaching career. “For me having played at that level, I have very high expectations with attitude, energy, and effort”, she explained. “What we do and how we do it, is at a high-performance level, so the players know the expectations coming in. They know the level of commitment required, so while they’re apart of the program, they’re going to be working their tails off to be the best that they can possibly be.”

“She just has so much experience and knowledge of the game, which is easy for us to pick up on and learn from. I cannot believe how much I’ve learned since I’ve been here and how much I realized didn’t know when I was in high school”, redshirt-junior midfielder Camryn Pichea added.

Despite the wide geographical net Louisville has casted to recruit players, Sowry and the Cardinal coaching staff continues to bring in recruits with similar intangibles of high character and willingness to buy into the program’s culture. Overall, the team has players from a total of four different countries, all with different respective cultures; the overall continuity of the sport brings those together cohesively.

“I barely spoke English when I came here”, sophomore midfielder and native of The Netherlands Charlie van Oirschot explained. “I could understand it, but I wasn’t as fluent as I am now. Coming over when COVID was happening was a big shock for me. I had just graduated high school before coming here, so it was a big adjustment for me, but other than that, field hockey is as the same as back home. The transition was not as hard as I thought it would be.”

The difference in playing styles among nation’s is notable, but not necessarily a bad thing. Junior defender and Holland native Julie Kouijzer embraces the differences and views it as a unique experience. “I love it. it’s just really cool being able to see different styles of play and I’m meeting people from all over the world”, she said.

Their respective journeys to Louisville were different, but similar at the same time. Both contributed the family appeal and overall comfort playing for Sowry.

“At first, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play field hockey in America”, van Oirschot explained. “After I talked to coaches from different universities, I was convinced that it was something that I wanted to do. I felt like Louisville was the place that was the most welcoming; the coaches really want to help you to become to the best person that you can be.”

Kouijzer only echoed those sentiments, confirming the notion that Louisville’s recruiting approach was too good to pass up. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after graduating high school”, she said. “At home, it’s really hard to be a good athlete and have a full-time education. I talked to some old teammates that were excited and spoke highly of the hockey here (in America). An agency helped me out and made a video of my highlights; Justine contacted me through the email and we just started talking. I felt at home at Louisville and she made me feel like family. The facilities are insane and it was a no-doubter for me.”

The different playing styles can benefit a team as a whole, but it can also be challenging to adapt to American field hockey. Kouijzer has been an exception due how well she adjusted to the way the sport is approached.

“It is a 100% a culture shock, and Julie has been the one that has adapted the quickest over the years”, Sowry said. “All of these ladies come from countries where you may train twice a week and then play a game on the weekend. Here in the United States, it’s the most intense, compact season of all the sports. We go 100 miles-per-hour, because we have to get things done quickly. Not to mention, we do things differently so you have to come in with a open mindset.”

Overall, Sowry and the coaching staff have have recruited players from all over the world, while also keeping it a priority to bring in the local talent as well. The roster contains six players from the Louisville area, representing four different high schools.

“That has always been a priority”, Sowry said of recruiting local players. “Sometimes kids want to go away, but I will always try to keep them here. Given the community’s support for the program, you can be a rock star here, with your loved ones coming to games. It’s important to create and maintain that pipeline. I don’t necessarily think the sport itself is growing (in the city), but the depth at the top end is the best it has ever been.”

Having won two state titles at Sacred Heart Academy, junior forward Mattie Tabor grew up wanting to play for the hometown university. “It was definitely a goal of mine, she explained. “My grandpa actually played football here so we (family) have always been Louisville fans and I’m a big home-and-family girl so staying close to home and them being able to come to my games is great. I had been going to Louisville camps since I was a little girl.”

Pichea did not have envision herself playing for Louisville as she grew up like Tabor did, but the family aspect and overall familiarity with the program kept her in the Derby City. “In my eighth grade year, I decided I may be good enough to play in college and I started coming to Louisville camps”, she recalled. “I created relationships with Justine and Lucas (Piccioli), who eventually recruited me during my sophomore year of high school. I honestly thought I was going to be someone that didn’t stay in my hometown, but now I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else. It’s so exciting to have family close be able to come watch me play and I just have so much pride being in the same city that I live.”

Not only does “the hometown hero” play a part in bringing in local talent, but the program’s involvement in the youth levels contributes immensely.

“A lot of our players coach for the local clubs, and I think the coaching style that we receive at Louisville transfers over”, Tabor said. “That allows the young girls to see how much they can grow and how well they can form connections, and that in turn transfers over into college and wanting to play together.”

International talent, hometown standouts, and notable national athletes make up a Louisville squad that has its eyes set on bringing the program its first-ever national championship. For a team that lost almost 50% of its scoring from a season ago, the Cardinals have not skipped a beat.

“Mercedes Pastor and Meghan Schneider were two fantastic players in critical areas of the field, so I had some concerns coming into the season”, Sowry admitted. “They have exceeded my expectations and have all stepped up and gotten better. It’s so difficult to make the NCAA tournament, and this senior class has had one of those years where they missed the tournament by dropping a game that they should not have, so that provides the hunger.”

The Cardinals returned nine starters from last year’s squad that played a unique two-part season. “I think playing during COVID last year prepared us because we only played ACC opponents, and our opinion is that it is the best conference”, Pichea said. “Going into a tough season where you’re playing ranked opponents most of the time, we already know how hard that is. You just can’t underestimate anyone. To be the best, you have to play the best.”

Through the first 13 matches for Louisville, eight of them have been against ranked opponents. The NCAA field hockey tournament is extremely tough to enter; playing the hardest schedule since Sowry has been at the helm poses its challenges for the reigning-ACC champions, but the leadership, hard work, and “humble and hungry” mindset have the Cardinals right in the middle of title contention yet again.

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