It’s practice two days before the then-No. 7 Demon Deacons take on the number three Tar Heels, and Wake Forest’s field hockey coach, Jenn Averill, stalks the sidelines like a predator observing her prey.
She’s leaning towards the field, crouched low to the ground, her weight centered on the points of her toes, and she’s not happy. She whips around to face the group of student-reporters watching practice and says something coaches aren’t supposed to say.
“We have a really nice team,” she said. “We’re super nice. The problem is, we’re soft.” Nice is something to strive for. We want our friends to be nice. We may even root for teams who are nice. But in the life-and-death coliseum of sport, “nice” gets you eaten by lions. Or in this case, rammed by Tar Heels.
So Averill storms to the center of Kentner Stadium, where Wake Forest both practices and plays their home games, and tells her team what she wants. She wants them to hit the turf for loose balls, to bust their butts and to push each other both literally and figuratively.
On Oct. 23, Wake Forest upset Carolina by a score of 3-2, and they were the more aggressive, assertive and desperate team. Averill got what she wanted.
North Carolina’s Head Coach, Karen Shelton, said after the game that she “knew Wake Forest would come out hard.”
Averill didn’t know that on her squad’s first two goals, the first scored by Emily Conroe 2:14 into the game and the second scored by Madi Julius 8:22 into the game, would be scored off of second chances after a penalty corner — the kind of plays that display supreme effort.
And Averill didn’t know that with about 12 minutes to go in the first half, junior midfielder Jessy Silfer would fall to her knees on the right side of the goal and use the facemask she had put on just before the play to deflect a blistering shot off of a penalty corner away from the net.
After Jess Newak blasted a penalty stroke low and left, just past the UNC goalkeeper’s outstretched arms, Wake left the field at halftime leading 3-0. Yet, neither the lead Wake had accumulated nor the sprinklers that rained down upon the field at Kentner Stadium during halftime could dampen the Deacons’ aggressiveness.
After UNC’s Nina Notman reduced the deficit to two off of a penalty corner, Wake could have lifted its foot off the accelerator and played it safe. They could have let UNC dictate the action.
But with about four minutes remaining, Newak watched UNC’s Eva van’t Hoog race down the left sideline towards Wake’s goal. Deep in pursuit, Newak poked the ball away from van’t Hoog, recovered the loose ball, turned around to head up-field, dropped her shoulder, and bowled over van’t Hoog like she was a monster truck and van’t Hoog was a Smart Car. nice
In a game in which UNC had 22 shots to Wake’s 10, and 12 penalty corners to Wake’s five, effort and aggressiveness made the difference.
Averill got her team to play tough by telling them, “Look, they’ve got every film on us, they know every defensive press we have, they know how we outlet the ball. They know our tendencies on the attack line, in the midfield, and through the backfield.
“What they don’t know is how much effort and how much heart you’re willing to invest in the game. So, quite honestly, after last week’s performance you got one choice, do it or get off the field.
“And you saw me at practice with that drill…now I got freaking kids bombing all over the field, I’m like, ‘geez we’re going to get a head taken off.’”
There’s a good chance that no coach has ever been so pleased about a possible decapitation.
But there’s something more to this. The Deacons didn’t just play aggressive, they played inspired. This was largely because, as senior goalkeeper Valerie Dahmen said, “Jenn was really hype for this game.” But it’s also because, as the star with 11 saves in the game admitted, it felt “like a mini ACC Championship.”
This group of seniors, led by Dahmen, Newak and Julius, had never beaten Carolina before.
“We waited four years for this,” Newak said.
Julius added, “Our class hasn’t beaten UNC. We’re seniors. We weren’t going to not beat UNC.”
When the game was over, the team cried.
It was even bigger for Averill. She hadn’t beaten UNC since November 7, 2008. That’s 16 straight losses. When the final horn blew, she hugged her assistants.
Her team accomplished this by playing physical. All 602 people in attendance saw it, but the only thing that mattered was if Averill saw it.
So, did her team play soft?
“Not today,” Averill said proudly.
Later that week, the Wake Forest field hockey team shut out Davidson 2-0 and moved up to No. 5 in the NFHCA coaches’ poll. The Deacons will end their regular season on Sunday. Oct. 31 against No. 15 Boston University.