Whether it’s marking up on the defensive circle or containing the ball to generate an offensive corner, Temple University field hockey’s midfielders are cross-trained to see the field from two different perspectives—as a defender and attacker.
Interim head coach Michelle Vittese, who played midfield at the University of Virginia in 2012, believes midfielders are the team’s most technical players when it comes to stick work, she said.
Seventeen of Temple’s players this season are midfielders, many of whom are expected to see playing time in positions like center forward or right defensive back instead, which could help Temple generate more shots on goal.
Vittese transitioned to forward when she made the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2011 because that’s what her coach needed. With the Owls, she plans to train her squad to play any position on the field so it’s easier to fill the missing holes left by the graduates, she said.
“The biggest thing we’re trying to work on is our connection through the lines,” said junior midfielder Claire Thomas. “So we’re not really breaking up into midfield, forward and defense groups at practice. It’s more so let’s all play together.”
Temple lines up with three forwards, four midfielders and three defensive backs, with the center back at the top of the Owls’ circle aligned with the goalkeeper.
In the Owls’ first game against Merrimack College, two true freshman midfielders, Julianne Kopec and Tess Muller, were lined up as forwards. Instead of playing side by side, the two constantly backed each other up with through passes rather than being a flat option.
Kopec scored two goals against Merrimack in her first collegiate start. One of those goals was from an offensive corner as Muller’s drive ball ricocheted off of Kopec’s stick and into the goal.
“[Kopec] adds a lot,” Thomas said. “Super-fast, super gritty and I think she’s winning the ball just from her personality and how she plays.”
Temple’s offensive corners are set up with junior defensive back Nienke Oerlemans inserting the ball and Thomas and graduate student forward/midfielder Grace Angelella at the top of the circle as setters.
When the play starts, Oerlemans sweeps the ball to the hitter aligned with the setter, which are usually freshman forward Myrthe Schuilenburg and sophomore defensive back McKenna Burkhardt.
Depending on the play call, the idea is to mislead the opponent from knowing which direction the inserter would send the ball to.
“If we can get a corner, we want to be able to score, and I think we’re nailing on that,” Thomas said.
Another skill the Owls have been working on is the transfer to midfield, Thomas added.
When freshman center midfielder Kaitlyn Cummins is looking to switch to Temple’s dominant side of the field, she’ll send the ball to Oerlemans, who will then switch directions and send the ball right out wide to Thomas.
The midfielders’ ability to utilize open space in center field has allowed more opportunities for the forwards and backs to make a pass, Thomas said.
In the Owls’ two games against Drexel University and Bucknell University, Temple’s midfielders applied pressure by keeping their sticks low and jabbing their opponents in the center field, then quickly switching the direction of their feet when moving downfield.
Kopec started as a center forward against Bucknell. Approximately five minutes into the game, she intercepted an incomplete pass by a defensive back, then dribbled the ball down center field for a one-on-one with the Bison’s goalkeeper and scored.
“We’re focusing on full gameplay rather than breaking it down too much,” Cummins said. “I think we’re focusing on the bigger picture, how we’re going to play and pressure in general. We’ve been practicing with bigger scrimmages to get us ready.”
Last season, Temple’s leading scorers were Oerlemans and former midfielder Veronika Novakova, who each tallied four goals.
“We lost a big senior class and it’s scary going into this year,” said junior defensive back/midfielder Annie Judge. “But the freshman class came in like ready to go, in shape and excelling on the field.”
Kopec has taken five shots on goal, and four of those shots found their way to the back of the net. Muller and Thomas lead the team with two assists.
The Owls won three of the four games they’ve played so far and are averaging 9.5 shots per game, compared to 7.7 shots per game last season.
Last season, the Owls finished 4-8 in the Big East conference, and with the added midfield depth this season, Temple could see a different outcome against those opponents.
“Coming from our senior class, it started with winning like two games our freshman year to getting into the Big East,” Thomas said. “I want to finish on a note that we compete even higher into the Big East and make it to the championship.”