Last weekend, the Bowdoin women’s field hockey team (11-5, 6-4 NESCAC) saw its season come to an early end at the hands of Williams (12-4, NESCAC 7-3), with a 3-2 loss in the NESCAC quarterfinal. This latest premature exit from the NESCAC tournament is the third consecutive year the Polar Bears have bowed out of the competition before reaching the finals.
On paper, the team’s performance in recent years would appear to constitute a slump in success when viewed in comparison to the decade before it, in which the Polar Bears brought home seven NESCAC championships, four NCAA DIII National Championships and only failed to qualify for the NESCAC championship final once. However, in the eyes of Head Coach Nicky Pearson, despite Bowdoin’s recent statistical woes, her team is getting along just fine.
Coach Pearson is statistically the most successful coach in the history of Bowdoin athletics. Over her 23-year career, she boasts an all-time record of 338 wins and only 75 losses. Additionally, Pearson has won an extensive list of personal accolades, including nine NESCAC Coach of the Year awards and four Division III Coach of the Year awards.
Under Pearson’s guidance, the Bowdoin field hockey program has risen to the top of the Division III field hockey pantheon. Starting in the late 1990s, Pearson steadily developed the fledgling program into a national powerhouse, culminating in a de facto dynasty starting in the late 2000s. Between 2010 and 2015, the Polar Bears boasted an astonishing average winning percentage of .896 and never had a season below .800.
However, in the three years since, the team has accumulated a comparatively modest average winning percentage of .654. Last year, the team had its first seven-loss season in almost three decades, finishing 10-7 and falling out of the NESCAC tournament in the first round.
Pearson attributes Bowdoin’s regression to a significant increase in the overall level of competition across the NESCAC. However, she viewed this trend not only as a challenge for Bowdoin, but also as as a good thing for the conference as a whole.
“From top to bottom the conference is very competitive,” said Pearson. “On any given day, anybody can beat anybody else. The success of so many teams had drawn attention to the quality of the field hockey that’s being played, and that has created a lot of interest from prospective students. As a conference we’re reaping the benefits of some terrific women playing field hockey.”
Pearson added that the growing NESCAC brand and mainstream appeal of field hockey clubs has allowed coaches to recruit players from across the country.
“We’ve got players from 11 states, so there is quite a bit of geographic diversity,” she said. “There are a lot of clubs opening up in all the pockets of the country where field hockey is being played. [These players] are becoming more visible to NESCAC coaches.”
This increasingly talented recruiting pool has contributed to making the NESCAC a stronger and deeper conference, especially over the past few seasons. At least one NESCAC team has competed in the NCAA DIII championship game for the past eight years. Bowdoin was that team four times, but the statistic nonetheless serves as an indicator of the conference’s national success.
Before 2010, Bowdoin and Middlebury consistently traded places at the top of the Penn Monto/NFHCA Division III End-of-Season Coaches’ Poll and were the only two NESCAC teams to perennially appear on the list. However, since that era, at least five NESCAC teams have consistently appeared in the top 20, and in a few instances less-established programs such as Tufts and Trinity have even leapfrogged the conference’s two historical heavyweights to positions near the top of the poll.
Pearson cited two key changes for NESCAC field hockey in recent years: “success of the conference at the national level and the depth.”
Although Bowdoin hasn’t brought home much hardware over the past few years, Pearson’s ethos doesn’t revolve around winning trophies as the sole marker of success.
“We went into the season with a goal of being competitive in every game and being competitive in the conference, and we achieved that,” she said. “[Our goal was] to improve every day, which the team did.”
Members of the team echo Pearson’s belief that for Bowdoin field hockey, success is defined by far more than just wins and losses.
“The team’s legacy is [defined by] success and winning on the field, but it’s also the culture that the team develops,” said captain Kara Finnerty ’20. “We are only here for a short amount of time, and our job is to leave [the program] better than we found it and to live up to the legacy of the teams that have come before us.”
Speaking to the legacy of the program, Finnerty, along with fellow captains Johna Cook ’19 and Elizabeth Bennewitz ’19, did not simply describe the statistical success of the team throughout its history. Instead, they described a rich culture of camaraderie and team pride.
“A lot of [the program’s success] is in the intangible relationships that we create,” said Finnerty. “I can have a conversation with a Bowdoin field hockey player that I didn’t overlap with at all, but we’ll still have so much to talk about because we had those team experiences.”
Bowdoin field hockey is steeped in tradition, and Pearson makes sure that her players are aware of the program’s storied history.
“The idea of ‘preserving the jersey’ is one that we’re very well aware of,” said Cook. “We have traditions dating back 25 years … we still walk out to the same song, ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday,’ that they’ve been playing for decades.”
With such a rich history and legacy in the Bowdoin community, it is no wonder younger sisters often choose to play for the same team as their siblings. Each year, the team can rely on family legacies to preserve the program’s traditions.
The Finnerty sisters are one example of these family legacies. When Kara’s older sister Colleen Finnerty ’15 played field hockey at Bowdoin, her career included four consecutive trips to the NESCAC championship game, a NESCAC championship and four NCAA tournament appearances. In 2013, Bowdoin won the DIII National Championship.
In her three seasons at Bowdoin, Kara has not yet been part of a team that has reached a NESCAC final, nor has she had the opportunity to play in an NCAA tournament match. However, she would say that her time on the team has been just as successful as her sister’s.
“[My sister and I] have had vastly different experiences, but that’s not to say that one has been better than the other,” said Kara. “It’s the legacy and development of the core values [that define] who we are as a team.”
When asked about her long-term goals for the program, Pearson responded by saying that she didn’t have any. “[I] just take it year-by-year,” she said. Over her illustrious career, this philosophy has yielded exceptional results. All fans can do is sit back and observe, as the Polar Bears continue to battle in an ever-more-competitive conference.