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Drexel hoops star Hannah Nihill adds another sport, returning to an old love | Mike Jensen

Nihill was a goal-scoring field hockey star at Cardinal O’Hara High. Now she's playing again.

Drexel University forward Hannah Nihill takes control of the ball during field hockey practice.
Drexel University forward Hannah Nihill takes control of the ball during field hockey practice.Read moreJonathan Wilson

This new Drexel field hockey player, turning heads on the practice field, wasn’t even recruited to the Dragons team. The sales pitch worked the other way.

“Every year she would text me and remind me that she was on the docket for a fifth year,” said Drexel field hockey coach Denise Zelenak, meaning that this woman trying to text her way on to Zelenak’s team was part of Drexel’s five-year co-op program and wanted field hockey to be part of that fifth year.

Not usually how it works, except in this case, Zelenak took it seriously, because the texts came from Hannah Nihill.

Nihill’s hoops resume is a head-turner. Not just an all-Colonial Athletic Association first-team point guard in 2020-21, leading the CAA champs to the NCAA tournament, a 22-point scorer in last season’s competitive NCAA loss to Georgia. Nihill is Drexel’s first-ever CAA defensive player of the year, known for covering every inch of the floor, and bouncing off it when she gets knocked down, and never — like, ever — getting fatigued.

» READ MORE: On the hoop court, Nihill defines mental toughness

Put a stick in Nihill’s hand? That sounds interesting.

In fact, Nihill had been a goal-scoring field hockey star at powerhouse Cardinal O’Hara High, with over 103 career goals, a Division I-level potential recruit if she hadn’t already chosen basketball.

Knowing she’d be in college for a fifth year, Nihill pitched trading sports because she assumed her Drexel hoops career would be over now. Except because of the pandemic, everyone was granted an extra year of NCAA eligibility, which means she’s a two-sport player now, since Zelenak took those text pleas quite seriously.

“She’s not perfect, and she gets really frustrated, which is fun,” Zelenak said Wednesday morning, standing on the field at 43rd and Powelton, the Dragons finishing up one of their last practices before Friday evening’s season opener against Longwood. “It’s like nothing can be handed to her, and she’s earning everything. If you look at her knuckles and her knees, she’s on the ground for everything. We had her for three days in the spring, for the first time playing since high school, and she was rough. I’m [telling her], it’s like riding a bike.”

So it will take time? Maybe get some playing time eventually?

“She’s starting,” Zelenak said.

Crazy. The way the forwards are substituted, that could mean Nihill will play about 40% of the time. Still, crazy, after four years without a stick in her hands.

“Her skills are not polished, but the best part, they are so perfectly timed, it doesn’t matter,” Zelenak said. “She throws whatever skills she possibly can … People don’t know how to read it. She’ll do things that are a little unorthodox but the right play. She uses whatever skills she’s got in her pocket.”

“It’s not traditional — I keep hearing that a lot,’’ Nihill said of her instinctive moves. “I’m just winging it.”

“Hannah is very fast,” said Puk Thewessen, a Dragons senior defender from the Netherlands. “There’s a ball — oh, she’s never going to get that. Then she does. And then, she does, like, these weird skills. I think because in basketball, you make a lot of moves.”

Here, Thewessen mimics a crossover move, feinting with her shoulders.

“She just uses her space and the length of her stick very well and then she makes big movements,’’ Thewessen said. “She is very irregular.”

“I think you’re unpredictable,’’ said Emily Owens, a senior.

“Unpredictable, that’s the word,’’ Thewessen said.

Nihill first showed up for some informal pickup games in the spring. Owens, a Dragons captain from Methacton High, saw her quickness, and that Nihill was a finisher. “Which we really need on our team,” Owens said.

» READ MORE: Hannah Nihill's greatest assist was as a freshman, to her sister

What didn’t Nihill know?

“I still don’t know the rules,” Nihill said after practice, standing with Drexel’s three team captains. That cracked them up.

“I never really did know the rules,” Nihill said. “I’m still learning that. Just like their terminology, the different kinds of passes. I remember Denise saying like dog leg pass and I was like, ‘What the heck is that?’ I literally had to text my high school coach, ‘What is this?’ "

Teammates kind of have a basketball-to-field hockey translator for her to help out with all that.

“She’s constantly asking questions,” said Katie Ronan, another senior captain, from Dublin, Ireland. “She’s such a smart player. She knows the big things. You saw her develop from the spring.”

Right after the practice, which ended with Drexel practicing corner plays, Nihill got with sophomore forward Eline Di Leva, the team’s leading scorer in the abbreviated 2020 season which was actually played in the spring of 2021, the Dragons going 5-6, and 3-3 in CAA play. Di Leva was doing the coaching.

“We haven’t done offensive corners,” Zelenak said. “She was drawing out a couple of the trick calls, so they were on the same page.”

“There are just different presses,” Nihill said. “She was going over, if he’s like the point of it, where I would be.”

Is there anything she does in basketball that doesn’t translate? That ball-hound defending …

“Oh, yeah, no,” Nihill said. “I’m not great at defense.”

“I think what translated really well is just being an athlete,’’ Owens said of Nihill, standing by her. “You’re really quick to the ball. You have a lot of — what’s the word — fierceness. You stretch the field really well. You just know the position, you know where to fill in, which I feel like is probably translating from basketball.”

A lot of veterans are back, a strong core, plus new talent in — the players all say they are excited for this season, looking to take a big step up and be a CAA contender. Nihill had some close friends on the team, but didn’t know all the players, just of them, and found them all to be very welcoming. Zelenak is kind of intrigued by that aspect of it, in a positive way.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Nihill said.

She won’t rejoin hoops until field hockey season ends, but gets to the gym when she can, even for informal workouts, or just to watch. It’s not like Nihill needs the work. The missing hole on the hoops side may be that teammates won’t have their leader with them all the time. Then again, until the COVID-19 NCAA ruling about everyone getting an extra year, she was going to be done.

”This will give others on the team an opportunity to step up and grow and develop as leaders on the court,” said Dragons hoops coach Amy Mallon. “My hope is as Han returns — it will just elevate the intensity of what we do.”

The idea of Nihill impacting another team, Mallon said, “will only be a positive for us. When Hannah is competing she is at her best.”

Since Nihill sat out field hockey for four years and “it came back to her,” Mallon said. “I’m hoping a few months off from basketball will just be time away … [then] she explodes when she comes back.”

On the basketball court, she’s naturally in charge of getting teammates into proper spots. Now, that role falls to others. She likes it.

“I feel like I’m a freshman again,” Nihill said. “But I’m not.”