IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa field hockey coach Lisa Cellucci tried her best to stay positive at media day on Thursday, but it’s hard when adversity keeps landing punches.
Cellucci started her interview by telling reporters that star player Natalie Cafone will take a redshirt this season in order to recover from a reoccurring shoulder injury.
“Obviously, it’s very unfortunate for the team,” Cellucci said. “It’s going to be big shoes for everybody to fill. But we’re really counting on Nat’s leadership in a very different way this year. And she is committed to helping this team move forward and to be ready to go in the fall of 2016. So she’s rehabbing hard. But it, obviously, changes some things for us.”
Cafone’s injury comes on the heels of an emotional year involving the once-powerful Iowa field hockey program.
The program has been entangled in controversy since Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta fired longtime head coach Tracey Griesbaum last August.
Cafone was among two current and two former Iowa field hockey players who filed a Title IX complaint against their school in February, alleging gender discrimination in the decision to terminate Griesbaum’s contract.
Griesbaum also filed a civil rights complaint with the state in July. A complaint of this manner is usually the first step in filing a lawsuit in district court.
Griesbaum’s termination came after an internal investigation, prompted by complaints of harassment and mistreatment of players over years. The investigation didn’t prove or substantiate any violations, but raised concerns among UI officials about a “team environment of fear, intimidation and/or mistreatment.”
“It’s been hard,” said Cellucci, a former star goal keeper for the Hawkeyes, who also coached under Griesbaum at Iowa. “It’s affected our program in a lot of different ways. And we deal with it one step at a time.”
The Iowa field hockey program has a proud tradition of success, highlighted by winning the 1986 national title.
The program was strong when Griesbaum was hired as head coach and stayed that way under her watch, winning 169 games in 14 seasons. Griesbuam led Iowa to three consecutive Big Ten Tournament championships from 2006 to 2008, one regular season Big Ten championship, six NCAA Tournament appearances and the 2008 NCAA Final Four.
Cellucci now faces the daunting task of keeping the program on solid ground, while also making it appealing to recruits despite the controversy.
“It has been a challenge this year,” Cellucci said of recruiting. “But we’re doing everything we can to get out on the road and get in front of as many people as we can. But, yes, it’s been very hard.”
Cellucci is also doing everything she can to cope from a personal level. Her promotion to head coach came at the expense of a friend and mentor.
“It’s been a challenge,” Cellucci said. “And I think I made it pretty clear last year, obviously, it was a very personal thing to me and it’s ongoing. But I’ve been doing my best to put my best foot forward and to help these students-athletes achieve their goals on and off the field.”
The loss of Cafone is huge for several reasons, not the least of which is her immense talent. The Fairfield, N.J. native was a first-team all-American and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year last season. She led the Big Ten and ranked seventh nationally in points per game at 2.33.
Cafone is also one of the veteran leaders on the team. So her words carry a lot of influence.
“Since I can’t be on the field, I’m going to try and lead them off the field and do what I can to help them get better every day,” Cafone said.
Cafone said she was injured for the first time in November and again near the end of spring.
“So when it happened again, I had a feeling this would be the situation,” Cafone said.
The responsibility of replacing Cafone won’t fall to one person, but junior Stephanie Norlander will play an expanded role. Norlander ranked fifth in the Big Ten and 19th nationally in points per game last season (1.94). She also made second-team all-American.
“She absolutely is going to be our go-to player on the field,” Cellucci said of Norlander, who is from North Vancouver in Canada. “So, absolutely, she will step up into a big leadership role, and have to be counted on to play probably a couple different positions.”
Norlander is eager to embrace her new role.
“I’m excited about it and I’m ready to take it out on the field with all my Hawks beside me,” she said.
Iowa will play two exhibitions matches this weekend in Louisville, Ky. Louisville will be Iowa’s opponent on Saturday followed by Indiana on Sunday.
The Hawkeyes will face Wake Forest in the regular-season opener on Aug. 29 in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the opening day of the ACC/Big Ten Tournament.
The loss of players either by graduation or by transferring out of the program already had depleted Iowa’s 2015 roster. And now Cellucci is without her star player for the entire season.
“I think it’s a great opportunity just because we’ll be able to get a lot of people a lot of experience,” Cellucci said. “We’re not conceding the season because Natalie is not available or because we’re young.
“It’s going to test our character for sure every week."