In the past, Delaware used to be underdogs.
After stunning North Carolina last November to win the program’s first national championship, the Blue Hens entered 2017 with a target on their backs, a feeling that they’re still getting used to.
“It is definitely very different to last year,” said junior forward Greta Nauck. “Last season we were the biggest underdogs, teams didn’t really respect us, didn’t really consider us as one of top programs. So this year, you can really see how teams prepare, they want to beat the defending national champions.”
Currently ranked No. 6 in the country, Delaware (5-1) is traveling to Manheim, Pa., this weekend for a neutral site showdown with No. 2 Penn State (5-0), although you probably won’t convince coach Rolf van de Kerkhof that this game is bigger than any other on the Blue Hens’ schedule.
“Every game you play is big, especially if you are one of those top programs because everybody’s gunning for you,” said van de Kerkhof. “We don’t worry about who we play, we respect our opponent, but the opponent at the end of the day is irrelevant.”
Van de Kerkhof, the reigning NFHCA Division I Coach of the Year, arrived in Newark, Del., in December 2010 to revitalize the Blue Hens after spending 12 years at Michigan State, including the last five as head coach.
During his first two seasons, the program experienced growing pains, posting back-to-back losing seasons while failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament. But in year three, things began to change.
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The team posted what was at the time a program record of 17-5, claiming the Colonial Athletic Association title en route to the program’s fifth NCAA tournament berth.
Since that time, Delaware has claimed the last four CAA tournament titles and earned a bid into the NCAA Tournament each season, culminating in 2016’s magical run where the Blue Hens won its last 19 games, while knocking off the likes of Duke, Princeton and North Carolina to win the title.
But all of that is in the past, and van de Kerkhof has implemented a mentality to keep the focus solely on what lies ahead.
“We have a Cinderella rule,” said van de Kerkhof. “We just have to say at midnight it’s time for us to let go of that day and focus on the next day… They’ve [the players] done a phenomenal job of staying in the moment. It’s about taking the little steps forward.”
One player who took a giant leap forward and burst on the national scene last season was Nauck.
The Krefeld, Germany native shattered program records in 2016, tallying 33 goals, including the game winner against the Tar Heels, and 76 points, both of which also led the nation. As a result, she became the first player for Delaware to earn the CWSA Honda Sport Award for field hockey, the nation’s top honor.
— DelawareFieldHockey (@DelawareFH) September 13, 2017
For her career, she currently sits fifth all-time in points (119) and tied for third in goals (51), although those records are sure to be coming down in the near future.
“She’s one of the best players in the country,” said van de Kerkhof. “She’s very humble and even though she is a traditional leader and will probably break the school record before the end of her junior year, it’s not about individual prizes. She really wants this team to do well and she will do what she can to make that work.”
“But at the same time, when the going gets tough, you can give the ball to Greta because she’ll find a way.”
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Nauck, however, prefers the media to discuss her accolades while she goes out and looks for ways to help her team beyond the box score.
“I don’t really focus on individual awards, I just want to be the best player I can be for the team,” said Nauck. “So I focus on being a leader on the team, helping the younger players who are inexperienced and benefit the team that way.”
Lotte de Koning and Femke Strien, who both hail from the Netherlands like their coach, are two freshmen that have benefitted from Nauck’s presence since arriving on campus.
De Koning took home CAA rookie of the week honors Tuesday after tallying three goals and an assist in two games this past weekend. She currently sits third on the team in points with 13. Strien took home the same honor the previous week.
Lotte de Koning Collects CAA Field Hockey Rookie of the Week Accolades #BlueHens
— DelawareFieldHockey (@DelawareFH) September 12, 2017
The opportunity to watch and prod one of the best players in the country with questions is a unique asset to have while adjusting to the pace of the college game.
“I think everyone learns a lot from her (Nauck),” said de Koning. “She’s an incredible player, has incredible technical skills. You can really learn a lot just from watching her play.”
But regardless of who’s on the field, the Blue Hens focus on the playing style of “De-ho,” a term van de Kerkhof coined for Delaware hockey. The philosophy relies on the combination of the three facets of the game: an attacking offense/defense and the irrelevance of the opponent.
If Delaware can get all 11 players on the field to execute the game plan for a full 70 minutes, at the end of the day, they believe can mirror 2016’s success.
“We are so confident that we can make it to the final four and receive our awards the same that we did last year,” Nauck said.
Gaining national respect might have taken some time for Delaware, but the Blue Hens currently have it, and they are determined not to let it slip away.