San Diego has long managed to produce some of the top college field hockey prospects in the nation, including Olympians and U.S. national team players, despite the lack of an elite collegiate program on the West Coast to nurture the sport.
- By Tom Shanahan, San Diego Hall of Champions
The sport they knew in high school is the same game they play in college, but their field hockey careers have landed them far from San Diego. In many ways they’re in another world.
The cold weather–the season stretches to include games played in snow or sleet by the end of the fall–is only one difference. There also is the temperature of rivalries, the lack of authentic Mexican food and the distance from their comfort zone.
But this is the way it has to be if you’re a San Diegan and you want to play big-time college field hockey. San Diego has long managed to produce some of the top college prospects in the nation, including Olympians and U.S. national team players, despite the lack of an elite collegiate program on the West Coast to nurture the sport.
West Coast recruits understand that testing their games beyond high school means they must venture to Midwestern and Eastern colleges. Four San Diegans playing for national-power Michigan State have helped the Spartans earn a No. 1 national ranking in the season’s first national poll.
The four San Diegans gathered at the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum before they returned to school to open the 2004 season. They explained the adjustments they face living in the Midwest and the challenge they welcome playing in the Big Ten.
Jessica Miller, a junior All-Big Ten midfielder from La Costa Canyon, and Jackie Ahinga, a fourth-year starting defender from Serra, are seeking their second NCAA Final Four berth in three years while playing for the Spartans. Michigan State, ranked No. 1 for part of last season, decided in a team meeting that an NCAA title is their goal this year.
Ashley Pernicano, a sophomore forward, joined the Spartans last year from Torrey Pines and contributed in a backup role. The Spartans’ latest San Diego recruit is Kathryn Elenz-Martin, a forward from La Costa Canyon who was named to the U.S. Under-19 national team.
“At first, you’re so excited for the opportunity to play field hockey you’re not thinking about how far away from home you are,” Miller said. “But after about a month, you start to think, ‘I’m re-e-e-ally far away from home.”
Ahinga helped Miller through that first year, they both assisted Pernicano last year and now all three will aid Martin’s adjustment to so many differences in lifestyle.
“The first semester is hard,” Pernicano said, “but you can talk to the other girls about what you miss about home because they know what you’re going through.”
After the shock of the distance settles in, there is the weather to cope with.
“I remember when we played at Northeastern (in Boston) and it was sleeting so much you couldn’t see in front of you,” Ahinga said. “I’ve never been so cold.”
The San Diego Spartans, known as “Cali Girls” by their teammates, a common term used at other Big Ten schools for for West Coast recruits, say they’re constantly derided, “Oh, the Cali Girls are cold,” even when the temperature is milder than snow or sleet conditions.
“I miss not being able to wear sandals all the time,” Ahinga said. “When the weather finally warms up in the spring it’ll be 62. We’re still cold, but they’re in T-shirts and say it’s sunny.”
The lack of weather and food can go together.
“Sometimes we’ll say how great it would be to have a burrito on the beach right now,” Miller said. “No one else on the team knows what we’re talking about. They’ll say, ‘Go to Taco Bell,’ and we say ‘No, you don’t understand.’ ”
But the fun part, the reason they’ve traveled so far from home, are the rivalries and traditions that come with sports in a conference such as the Big Ten. Elenz-Martin remembers her recruiting trip last fall, which included attending an Iowa-Michigan State football game at sold-out Spartan Stadium.
“That was an experience like I’ve never been around,” Elenz-Martin said. “The students are painted green and white and they stand the whole game. I didn’t understand why we had to stand, but it was fun.”
It’s not just the high-profile sports of football and basketball, though, that bring out the passion of the fans.
“When we play Michigan in field hockey, people who don’t even know the sport will come out to cheer,” Ahinga said. “They’ll do anything to see Michigan State beat Michigan.”
Last year Michigan and Michigan State met in an NCAA Regional final at Michigan State. There were times when the play-by-play account reads as if it was played in San Diego.
Michigan’s Adrienne Hortillosa, a Bonita Vista graduate, scored the winning goal for the Wolverines to earn a trip to the Final Four. Her goal came moments after the Michigan goalie had made a spectacular save of a shot on goal by Miller. The Wolverines advanced the rebound to Hortillosa for the score.
Hortillosa, a team captain and All-Big Ten forward, and Katy Moyneur, a San Pasqual alum, are seniors this year at Michigan. They were freshmen when Michigan won the 2001 NCAA title with two other San Pasqual alums who have since graduated, Kristi Gannon and Erika Banuelos.
“When we see players from San Diego on other Big Ten teams we’ll talk,” Ahinga said. “But when we’re playing it’s really competitive.”
Miller and Ahinga have assumed leadership roles on the Spartans this year. At a preseason team meeting, the players realized an NCAA title should be their goal.
“I think it was in the back of everyone’s mind, and once one person said it we all said it,” Ahinga said. “It was like we weren’t afraid to talk about it anymore.”
Elenz-Martin hadn’t joined the team yet, but she’s expected to see significant playing time this year as one of the nation’s top recruits.
“I’m so excited about the season,” Elenz-Martin said. “I don’t know what to expect, but I’m open to everything.”
The “Cali Girls” know by now they can expect bad weather and the bland burritos, but it’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make. They’re playing big-time college field hockey.