The Owls are not ones to back down from a challenge. Just ask coach Marybeth Freeman.
The field hockey team starts its season with five games against opponents that finished in the Top 30 of the Ratings Percentage Index last season. The Owls are 0-3 so far, after Friday’s road loss to Penn State, ranked No. 7 in the Aug. 22 National Field Hockey Coaches Association poll. The Owls have back-to-back games against tough opponents this weekend, including a matchup against No. 14 Northwestern University.
It seems like a daunting schedule for a team that finished 7-12 last year. But Freeman wants these marquee matchups. She schedules tough opponents during the nonconference season to help her team improve.
“Why not play against the best to see what we need to do?” Freeman said. “I’d rather do it early and compete and learn versus learn the hardest way, which is the last game of the season.”
“I’m not interested in working our butts off on a daily basis and killing teams 9-0, we want to compete,” she added. “If we have to take some hits along the way to learn lessons so we can execute when we need to later in the season, that’s what I’m willing to do. And I feel very passionately about that.”
Her players have certainly bought into this idea. Senior forward and captain Hattie Kuhns believes these games against strong opponents are beneficial in the long run.
“I think it’s really big for us, that she schedules games like this so we can learn,” Kuhns said. “If we go out there and we just kill a team that’s not good as say Penn State, we’re not going to learn anything. So after games like this, we’re really going to break apart everything that goes on on the field, good or bad, and then come back and use it for another hard opponent next week.”
Under Freeman, the Owls are 2-12 with a -48 goal differential in regular-season games against ranked teams. Their two wins came against fellow Big East Conference school Old Dominion University in 2015 and 2016. Temple won both games by one goal.
Freeman, who started coaching at Temple in 2015, said she plans to continue making the team’s schedule this way every year. She wants her players to consistently be challenged early in the season.
“I could schedule a lot differently, but it’s not in my makeup to do it,” Freeman said. “I know it’s hard to wrap minds around, but I just need everyone who is affiliated with the program, players, alumni…to continue to support the way we are doing it because we will reap the benefits of it.”
After a preseason scrimmage with No. 6 University of Maryland, Temple started its season with back-to-back home losses to St. Joseph’s and Bucknell University on Aug. 25 and Aug. 27, respectively. The Hawks beat the Owls 4-1 and Bucknell won 3-1. St. Joseph’s finished 19th in last season’s RPI and Bucknell finished 29th.
The winless Owls face Northwestern on Friday and Kent State University on Saturday. Northwestern finished 2016 ranked No. 16 in the RPI, and Kent State finished ranked 28th.
Freeman believes come Big East tournament time, her team will be poised, experienced and ready to go.
Last season, Temple started off the season by playing tough nonconference teams like No. 2 Syracuse University, No. 18 Penn State and No. 10 University of Delaware in its first five games. By the time the Owls took on No. 13 Old Dominion University, they were prepared and pulled off a 2-1 upset victory in overtime.
“That game against [Old Dominion] we were just building and building and that was pretty much the turning point,” Kuhns said. “We came out here, we beat [Old Dominion], and that was it, guns blazing for the rest of the season.”
“As good as the teams we are playing against are, it really comes down to us and how we’re going to be able to execute under pressure,” Freeman said. “I think the plans we have in place are solid. There are some adjustments that we will be making, and we’ll be making them because we know our players are able to adapt. It’s going to be more about us, and that’s really what I’m concerned about going forward.”