The West Chester University field hockey team began this season with a clear mission after last year's disappointing end: get into the NCAA tournament.
"Following last season, we've kind of had to come into this season with a chip on our shoulder," said Kaitlin Hatch, a senior captain. "Last year, we won our conference and we weren't given a spot into the NCAA tournament. That kind of left a nasty taste in our mouth, so we were super excited to get back into this season. And I think our success has kind of been a result of what we learned in the past."
The Golden Rams, who have a rich record of accomplishment under eighth-year coach Amy Cohen, won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference last year, but because of losses during the middle of the season, they were left without an NCAA bid.
This year has been very different. The Golden Rams rebounded from a season-opening loss by ripping off 12 straight victories, and they have high hopes for the PSAC tournament, which will start Nov. 13, and beyond.
"Ever since that kind of happened last year where we didn't make the NCAA tournament but we won our conference championship, it was a gut-wrenching experience," Cohen said. "So the upperclassmen who then became seniors this year really worked hard making sure that all the underclassmen and freshmen of this year know what it takes to win in games."
The Rams opened by losing at Stonehill (Mass.), 2-1. But they remained upbeat.
"I remember the team saying afterward we'd rather lose now and learn something from this game than lose in the end," Cohen said. "That's kind of been the motto of the year ever since. So we're learning something each and every game."
When they played Bentley University days later, the Golden Rams scored eight goals to launch the winning streak, which ended last week against Kutztown. West Chester then rebounded again, winning both its games since, each by shutout.
West Chester (14-2 overall, 8-1 PSAC) features seven seniors who last season knew what they could achieve, but Cohen thought the attention to detail wasn't as high a priority as it is this season. The Golden Rams' identity is wrapped up in their "laid-back" persona, Cohen said. That's what separates this team from others she has coached, she said, including the Division II national-championship teams of 2011 and 2012.
"Not much bothers them. I'd say that's the biggest difference," Cohen said. "They don't let much bother them. I'd say the identity and the group is not very different than last year."
As captains, Hatch and Taylor Bracale have found what works for this year's team.
"Aside from leadership, we talk a lot about giving a perfect effort for every game, in every practice," Bracale said. "I think that has a lot to do with our success, because every day at practice, we're constantly competing. Every day, we're making each other better, and I think just giving 110 percent effort all the time really helps us move forward."
Caitie McNamara, a sophomore, said she has benefited from the way Bracale and Hatch have led the team. It has made them a close-knit group and has strengthened their bond as friends. She can go to them for personal matters on and off the field.
"On the field or off the field, just small things, we know we can bounce ideas off of them," McNamara said. "If there is an issue, they'll be able to give us the advice to be able to [solve it]. They've been really good. We love them."