Women’s Field Hockey Returns to the NEC
It’s a fresh start, but it’s not exactly new to the Northeast Conference.
The NEC crowned a field hockey champion every year from 1998 through 2012.
Now, following a seven-year hiatus, field hockey has returned to the NEC as a championship sport.
With NEC core member Wagner establishing a new program, the idea of taking field hockey back under the NEC umbrella was a no-brainer for Commissioner Noreen Morris.
“We had been in talks with the schools for some time, but we would only consider it if we had more core members sponsoring the sport,” said Morris. “With Wagner adding the program, now is the right time.”
Currently, there are five NEC schools (Bryant, LIU, Sacred Heart, Wagner and Merrimack*) and two associate schools (Rider and Fairfield) who will play under NEC sponsorship. Saint Francis University is still under contract with the Atlantic 10 conference (A10), and will re-join the NEC in 2020.
For Brendan Fahey, Wagner’s Deputy Director of Athletics, adding field hockey to their list of championship sports was on his radar for a long time.
“Field hockey is the perfect fit for our mission here at Wagner,” said Fahey. “We offer strong academic programs, a great location, and the opportunity to be part of a community. It was important to us that when we put this team together, we went out and recruited the right type of student-athlete.”
So why play for Wagner?
“We wanted student-athletes who not only wanted to play and who could play, but someone who valued their academics as well as someone who could contribute to the overall culture of Wagner,” said Fahey. “We were able to offer potential student-athletes guaranteed playing time in a competitive conference, a beautiful location- [both on campus and being close to Manhattan], and the opportunity to be part of something new from the ground up.”
The College’s location and the opportunity to build her own team was one of the deciding factors for new head coach, Niki Miller.
Miller, a native of New Jersey, has been playing field hockey since the second grade.
A self-described country girl, Miller said it was in fact the aesthetics of Wagner’s campus that helped her ultimately say yes.
“Before I committed, I told Brendan [Fahey] that I needed to see the campus,” Miller recounted. “Once I was able to be here and take it all in, it was an easy decision. I’m excited about the opportunity and ready to build a championship program here at Wagner.”
A four-year starter at UMass Amherst, Miller graduated in 2016 and moved to Connecticut to take on the assistant coaching position at Sacred Heart University under the direction of Sydney Van Der Merwe. She explained how her time at Sacred Heart was a perfect segue into head coaching because she had already been entrusted with a myriad of coaching and recruiting responsibilities at SHU which made her transition to Wagner a smooth one.
I asked Miller how she responds to those who might question her coaching a D1 team at her young age of 24.
She laughed, saying that she got the “age issue” at SHU as well, but retorted “Anyone has the ability to do it [coach]. The difference is whether or not you are going to be professional enough to get it done.”
Miller clearly relishes being on the younger side, explaining that it’s important for her players to be able to feel comfortable coming to her both on and off the field.
“It’s important to me that they know I’m approachable. I want to build those relationships first as a coach and mentor, and then as a friend,” said Miller. “We all need to be on the same page or none of this is going to work.”
Regardless of the sport, the NEC’s focus and commitment to the community is evident. From headquarters to the local communities, the schools of the NEC take pride in and share their importance for giving back.
Morris emphasized that “community partnership is one of the NEC’s core values. We place a strong emphasis on building relationships and a spirit of community. This includes building a community of respect and partnership between NEC members schools as well as building a community of service and giving between the NEC schools and their local communities.”
During the 2018-19 academic year, NEC student-athletes and coaches donated a record 40,527 hours of community service to their local communities. Since 2011, over 250,000 hours have been donated.
For Wagner field hockey, it is no different.
Community service is an essential part of the culture that Miller and Fahey hope to create.
“Community service is a big part not only of our campus, but with the NEC in general,” said Fahey. “It is important for the local Staten Island community, who may not be particularly familiar with field hockey, to see our student-athletes out there and have them be role models for the younger generations of girls.”
“Making connections and relationships with both our school and local community is huge. The girls are required to complete eight community service hours per semester,” said Miller.
“We are going to use this time to create visibility not just for us as a team, but for the school as a whole. We’re going to go out in our Wagner shirts and show everyone who we are and why they should support us.”
Fahey hopes to have a full roster of twenty-five to twenty-eight student-athletes within the next few years.
“We started with four athletes last year, and gave ourselves a year to recruit. I think we did a great job,” said Fahey. “Currently we have a group of student-athletes from all over the country. We have transfers from both Old Dominion and St. Francis, a student-athlete from Germany, and two from New Zealand, among others. We are looking to keep our recruiting fairly local for now, concentrating on the tri-state area, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, but we have also made connections with international clubs, which we hope will continue.”
With the Netherlands being fertile ground for field hockey talent, Wagner features four Dutch-born student-athletes on its inaugural roster.
“We’re a little behind where I’d like to be personally in recruiting, but the girls we have right now are awesome. I like a fast game and I look for speed. I want fast players who are hard working and in turn I will work hard for them,” said Miller.
While she doesn’t mind the title of underdog, she knows that this season will be less about competing for an NEC championship and more about the experience. “But you never know. If we can stay healthy, especially since we only have seventeen girls, we may surprise people, and win.”
Whatever happens this year, Miller says she is finding her way and excited to see where it leads as part of Wagner College Athletics.
Wagner will play a shortened schedule this year, competing in just thirteen games, six of which are NEC conference games. Their first game will take place on Friday, August 30th, at 1 PM, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.
*Merrimack is ineligible to play for a conference title for four years due to NCAA-mandated reclassification process from Division II to Division I.