Cinderella Story Ends Early for Bears

Photo: Sophomore defender Erin Magill earned second-team all-conference honors this season, when the Bears finished with an 8-11 overall record, including 4-2 in the NorPac.
Jeff Totten/File
Sophomore defender Erin Magill earned second-team all-conference honors this season, when the Bears finished with an 8-11 overall record, including 4-2 in the NorPac.

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Most of her team wasn't even aware that in 1980, then-Cal field hockey player Shellie Onstead led the Bears to a runner-up finish in the national tournament. She likes to refer to it as her Cinderella story.

That's why at the start of this season, after the mass exodus of 10 seniors, the 15-year coach didn't fall prey to the rhetoric of her program's rebuilding year.

Right before the NorPac tournament, she believed that maybe this was her chance to coach a Cinderella team. But just like the Bears' 1980 squad that fell one game short of a national title, this year's team was one win shy of a conference crown.

The result? No NorPac tournament title. No NCAA play-in game. No stopping Stanford's tournament dominance as it hoisted its third straight crown.

By definition, this squad didn't carry out a Cinderella run in the tournament. It scraped by Davidson and rebounded against Radford before getting shutout by the Cardinal.

And it didn't finish the regular season with a surprisingly successful record. If anything, it was a harsher reality than expected.

Only seven games into the season and already weighted by five consecutive losses and an 8-0 shutout by Maryland, the Bears looked like they would barely scrape out a handful of wins.

The Bears (8-11, 4-2 in the NorPac) were on the verge of finishing the season without a road win. And they only avoided that fate with a victory at UC Davis in their regular-season finale.

"Not to get the win at the end of the season, when you know that you can beat these teams, is probably one of the most frustrating things in sports," Erin Magill said. "But we never let ourselves think that we weren't good enough."

But perhaps under the guise of one-goal loses and sudden-death overtime contests, the Bears were being fitted for their glass slipper.

Their Cinderella run didn't end with the quintessential tournament title. Instead, it was the bolstering of a program that-because of an overhauled lineup-had dipped in experience and confidence.

Their reward was a mature and poised lineup that was able to rebound from a three-goal deficit and pressure the Cardinal in the second half of the finals.

This year's team was made under the shadow of the 2008 squad that, on paper, seemed like the ideal cast. Cal was charged with the task of taking a lineup without a single senior and carrying on the program's tradition as perennial NorPac juggernaut.

Freshmen like Deanna Kennedy, Kendra Bills and Laura Spellman joined the team and were almost immediately thrust into the starting lineup to fill Call's offensive void.

After 19 games, Kennedy-a second-team all-conference selection-led the team in assists, and Bills was explosive in the Bears' postseason attack.

"The freshmen would just take over games," NorPac West Offensive Player of the Year Natalie Nurnberg said. "In the finals they just took over the left side of the field. They're not waiting for someone else to step up."

Next season's goals are simple. It's been the same objective for the past four seasons: "Beat Stanford in the (conference) finals," second-team all-conference selection Magill said. "That's something I haven't done since I've been here, so it's my No. 1 goal."

And again, the win may have to come in storybook fashion.

"I like being the underdog," Kennedy said. "Next year, Stanford is going to expect to win for the fourth straight year, and our conference is going to underestimate us."

But the rest of the conference shouldn't be fooled by the Bears' darkhorse resume.

Aside from graduating points-leader Nurnberg and defensive power Sophie Sproats, it will be the same Cal squad that posted a regular-season win over Stanford, now returning eight freshmen with whetted appetites for a conference championship.

"Everyone in the hockey world cut us a break this year," Onstead said. "It was, 'Cal is just in a rebuilding year, but don't take them lightly.' But next year we can make a mark."


Contact Caroline Ogawa at [email protected]

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