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Saint Joseph’s looking to take another step at Atlantic 10 field hockey championships

The Hawks would earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Field Hockey Championships by winning the tournament they host this weekend.

Senior Anna Willocks (middle) and her St. Joseph's teammates are the top seeds in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Senior Anna Willocks (middle) and her St. Joseph's teammates are the top seeds in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.Read moreGreg Carroccio / Sideline Photos

It could end up being a most fortuitous omen, or it might have just been a coincidence.

As Saint Joseph's field hockey coach Lynn Farquhar talked outside of Ellen Ryan Field on Wednesday, a hawk swooped in and landed on the fence not more than 20 feet from her.

The regal raptor is the mascot of the university, and with St. Joe's hosting the Atlantic 10 field hockey championships this weekend, perhaps this City Line Avenue bird of prey wanted to send well wishes.

"The beauty of sport at this time of year is the competitiveness and passion," said Farquhar, who is in her fifth season. "This is what we train and play for."

The top-seeded Hawks (16-2, 8-0 A-10) will play No. 4 seed Richmond at 11 a.m. Friday at Ellen Ryan Field. No. 2 Virginia Commonwealth will play No. 3 Massachusetts at 2 p.m. The winners will play for the A-10 championship and an automatic bid into the 2018 NCAA Field Hockey Championships at 2 p.m. Saturday.

The Hawks won the A-10 tournament last season to earn their first NCAA bid, and repeating that scenario is the only safe way to return to the 18-team national championships. There are 10 automatic and eight at-large spots. Historically,  the Atlantic 10 has been a one-bid conference.

An upset loss to an A-10 rival could negate all the good things St. Joe's has done in the view of the NCAA selection committee.

"If we want to get to the NCAA Tournament, we can't be afraid to talk about it," said Farquhar, whose team is ranked 10th in the Penn Monto/NFHCA coaches poll, "but the A-10 is before that. If you only put your focus in the NCAA, the reality is you probably aren't going to get there."

In a short time, Farquhar has established a winning culture.

St. Joe's had had five straight losing seasons when Farquhar took over as a first-time head coach in 2014. She went 9-9 her first two seasons but then won 15, 18 and, now, 16 games. Those are the three highest win totals in a season for a program that began in 1975.

"We came in here with a three-year plan and a five-year plan and have stuck to it so far," said Farquhar, who played on the 2000 NCAA-championship team at Old Dominion. "The goal was to build a program in a lot of different ways.

"It wouldn't have happened if we did not have true pride in what we are doing and a group of players who are really invested in growing this."

Seniors Anna Willocks, Monica Tice and Joely Helder will graduate with at least 58 wins, by far the highest total for a four-year class at St. Joe's.

"I've had an awesome time over here playing for this team," said Willocks, who came nearly 9,000 miles to Philadelphia from Palmerston North, New Zealand. "I think we've done a really good job of bringing us up to being a nationally ranked program.

"I think it does come down to the culture we've set with our team. That's something I'm most proud of because working together as a team, as a family, really has enabled us to get to come to where we have."

Willocks became the lynchpin player for a new coach rebuilding a program.

Since committing to St. Joe's without having visited the campus, Willocks has become the program's first multiple NFCHA All-America selection and its leader in career goals (76), assists (33), and points (185). All those numbers could still increase.

"It's been a lot of hard work," said Willocks, the first player to be named Atlantic 10 Offensive Player of the Year three times, "but I can't take full credit because a lot of it is because of my teammates and coaches.

"I will say that my dad, who plays field hockey, told me, 'Strikers score goals.' That's always kind of been the motto in my head.

"I think if you put me on the defensive line, I'd probably score goals on my own goal."

Farquhar has taken a close-to-home and far-far-away approach to building her roster. The Hawks have 16 players from Pennsylvania or South Jersey, but there are also two from New Zealand, three from Germany, one from Scotland, and one from Argentina.

"First we set a character and what were the traits we wanted to have in players," Farquhar said. "From there, the hockey evolved.

"We really talk to all recruits about what our institution can offer. We want them to come here and become the best, well-rounded student-athlete they can be."