As she prepares to lead ninth-ranked Northwestern into the 2012 Big Ten Field Hockey Tournament, senior Chelesa Armstrong sat down with NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski to look back on her stellar four-year run with the Wildcats while looking ahead at a potential NCAA tournament berth.
You are Chelsea Armstrong, the centerpiece of the 'Cats nationally-ranked field hockey team. You are an All-American, your school's career scoring leader, just the ninth player in NCAA history to score over 100 goals, and you are something else as well. You are one of those who comprised the first recruiting class collected by Tracey Fuchs when she took over a program that had fallen on hard times, and so you and she are often acclaimed as the catalysts behind its refurbishment and resurrection. But you demur when this point is raised...
"I've said it before. It makes me a little uncomfortable.
"Well, not uncomfortable. But the recognition I get is based on a system that is all about statistics, right? It's all about shots and goals and things like that. There's never any credit given the people behind you who are setting you up for those shots and those goals.
"Exactly. They miss out on all the credit. But they're the ones in there blocking and opening those lanes up for the running backs or keeping the quarterback out of trouble. So I guess you could call me the quarterback. But don't forget about the offensive line.
"They have to do a bunch of work to get the ball down the field to you to get a shot.
"There's no way of measuring that, I guess you could say. So I really don't like taking that kind of credit for it when it's come from a group of 25 girls every year working hard together and getting that chemistry we've needed to be successful.
"I think if anything maybe I was a spark, perhaps, someone who could be up there and finish the goals. They might have been doing that the years before I got here, but didn't have that person back there who could finish for them.
"So I really don't think you can lay it down to the work of two people. It's been the work of 25 girls, all the coaching staff working toward the goal of being Big Ten champions every year.
"It can't be something that comes down to two people. If it was just me and Tracey, it wouldn't work too well.
"Obviously it's a huge honor. It's something I'm proud of and I'm glad I'm going to leave here and leave them behind for people to chase after. But they were never something I focused on. It was never a goal of mine to break those records.
"The goal was to be successful as a team and to get to be Big Ten Champions, things like that. It was a result of those goals, I guess, that those records fell, and obviously I'm proud of them. But it's not something I focused on as a personal goal."
You are Chelsea Armstrong and you hail from the Western Australian city of Geraldton, which overlooks the Indian Ocean. It was settled in 1850 and named after Sir Charles Fitzgerald, who was then the governor of the area, and now it is known for its pristine beaches and its alluring climate and its abundance of Rock Lobster. Some folk simply refer to it as Sun City and others, as the Lobster Capital of Australia. But, no matter what it is called, this is where it all began for you. . .
"My mom played field hockey in Australia.
"It's a bit different in Australia. It's a club system and my mom was playing club field hockey. So I would go down there and watch the games and be around it.
"I think I first started, I always forget, I think around seven. It's called Minkey field hockey. They play with a slightly bigger ball. It's just to get you started. (Ed. note: The name is derived from MINi-hocKEY and is also played on a smaller field.)
"That's where it all started. From there you play for your primary school and then it's in to the club system.
"As I said, it's different in Australia. There's less of an emphasis on high school sports and collegiate athletics. It's all club-based sports.
"I played with my mom when I got old enough. I think I was 14. Then we moved to Perth basically to play field hockey.
"I went to boarding school in Perth and was playing field hockey in Perth.
"There's no collegiate sports. In Australia, it's really different. So I was at (the) University (of Western Australia) going to school, but I was playing field hockey for the club that was near my house. It's a different system. You don't go into a university to play sports. You go there to get your education.
"I was going to school and playing club. Nothing crazy or exciting or anything like that.Then I got the phone call to come over here."
You are Chelsea Armstrong and, back in 2008, you know nothing of Tracey Fuchs or Carla Tagliente or universities called Michigan and Northwestern. But 'Cat athletic director Jim Phillips certainly knows of the legendary Fuchs, a renowned named in the sport of field hockey, and that is why he is now trying to lure her to Evanston. But she has been an assistant at Michigan since 1996 and so, with its head job open, she demurs, hoping to stay put and fill that vacancy. But eventually it goes to another and that is why, in January of 2009, she is introduced as the seventh head coach in the history of the Northwestern field hockey program. Coming with her to help is Tagliente, another Wolverine assistant and already your phone pal...
"This is the backstory I've heard. Carla called my club coach (Kate Starre) one day asking if she knew of anyone who'd be interested in coming over. She called me and briefly described what was going on and asked whether I'd be interested. Basically, on the phone, I said, "No. No. I'm pretty happy right here."
"A couple weeks went by and I was talking to some people and talking to my mom and everybody was, "This seems like a really good opportunity. Why don't you maybe think about it a little more?" After looking into it a little more, that's when I thought, "OK. Maybe I should talk to Carla."
"She called me.
"We're talking Michigan here. That was to go to Michigan.
"We're in '08. Maybe September. Maybe it was earlier than that.
"It wasn't until early January that Tracey and Carla moved here. By that stage, I'd started submitting my application documents to Michigan and things like that. Then they moved and gave me the opportunity to come with them or stay at Michigan. That's when I first really looked into both the schools.
"It was a pretty easy decision for me, especially because of the contact I'd had with Carla and Tracey. That was my only contact over here, so I decided to follow them here.
"Also, obviously, for the academics and the location.
"That's when I first looked deeply into the whole collegiate athletic thing.
I had no idea about collegiate athletics. I had no idea about college in America. The most I knew was from watching American Pie and those movies.
"It wasn't until then that I compared the two schools. I looked at Northwestern and saw it was very prestigious, its location was Chicago, it was still in the Big Ten, it wasn't like I was taking a slip in conference standing. Like I said, it was pretty easy for me.
"I'd never been to the States before. So I came over here for a 24-hour official visit and flew home again and I couldn't. I could have said, "Yeah, I'll stay here for four years" and then leave after two. But as a person I didn't feel comfortable doing that. After talking to some people, I just thought, "I'll verbally commit right now to two seasons. I don't want commit to four and then have to back out after two years because I'm feeling too far from home or something like that."
"It was just an insurance policy for me, I guess. I didn't want to commit to something I wasn't sure I was going to be able to complete, I guess, never being that far away from home and things like that.
"But, really, it didn't take me long to realize that I was going to be here longer than two years. It was pretty early on that I decided.
"It was just an experience I'd never, ever had the chance to experience in Australia. Being part of a team like this, you don't have that experience in Australia. You're not around this one team for this amount of hours every week. You don't have these seasons where you travel around and play different colleges around America. There's just no avenue for it in Australia.
"It was so much fun. You're with this team, you're traveling around, you're playing games. It's pretty much, I think, as close to being a professional athlete as you can get. It was just something I really enjoyed, I enjoyed being part of a team. So it didn't take long at all."
You are Chelsea Armstrong and, when you join the 'Cats in 2009, their field hockey program is in deep distress. It has not won a Big Ten title since 1994 and has not had a winning season since 1995. It has, in the first nine years of the current century, gone a miserable 55-111 overall and an even-worse 8-46 in conference play. A reclamation program is needed, that is clear, but you know none of this...
"I had no background in collegiate field hockey at all. I had no idea who the powerhouses were, I had no idea which conferences were better. It wasn't really something I thought about coming over at all. I didn't really look into winning records or anything like that.
"But even when I came over, it wasn't like I'd come over to a terrible program or anything like that. Obviously the facilities and everything are great. Tracey and Carla are amazing coaches. So it never felt to me like I played for a program that was in the (dumps), as you said. It never felt like that to me.
"Obviously I've seen some growth within the team since I've been here. The main thing is the winning mentality was missing when I first came. I'd come from successful clubs. I'd come, Western Australia is a very successful powerhouse I guess you'd say.
"I'd won medals in Western Australia within the Australian national competition (on the U-15, U-18 and U-21 levels).
"The only thing that was missing was that winning mentality. It wasn't that the program was in a bad place. It's just that the mentality was missing and that happens when you have losing seasons over and over and over.
"You forget how to win.
"You could see that. We'd get down in games and everyone would kind of give up. They'd be like, "We're down now. We probably can't win. Let's just not try as hard."
"Leadership-wise, I'm not very vocal. That's still something I have to work on, being more vocal. But I'd like to think how I trained and how I played was something people noticed and tried to feed off of.
"Maybe not consciously. But I think, looking back, people may have looked to me as a leader early on.
"Right away we were pretty successful. The non-conference season was pretty good, we won some good games. Then there were some games people pretty much expected us to lose against some tough competition. We struggled in the Big Ten still, which is something that's taken my whole four years here to improve.
"That's obviously something Tracey's worked really hard at, to instill that winning mentality. It's taken four years and we're still working at it.
"But this year I've noticed we've got it. We get down in a game, no one panics, we just keep playing how we need to play and we've managed to come out of a few sticky situations, which is different from previous years. In previous years, once we were down we were pretty much out.
"It was the big games that seemed to get to people a lot. Pressure situations weren't so good. It was that same thing. We'd get down and everyone would kind of, you know. So I think we had the tools there early on to be successful. But it was mainly that mentality thing that needed to change and has taken four years to change.
"But it has changed. It definitely has."
You are Chelsea Armstrong, the centerpiece of the 'Cats nationally-ranked field hockey team. You are an All-American, your school's career scoring leader, just the ninth player in NCAA history to score over 100 goals, and you are something else as well. You are preparing to lead your team, which stands an impressive 16-3, into his weekend's Big Ten tourney in Iowa, where any game could be your last. . .
"It's like an added pressure. "This is it. It's the last time." I think it's something I need to feed on a little more as a motivational factor.
"I kind of keep forgetting that this is my last time around and that we could be one-and-done this week and BE DONE. That's a scary thought, and I think I need to try and feed off that and try to motivate the people around me.
"All the seniors feel the same way and I think the rest of the team really wants to send us out on a good note. So, yeah, it's just an extra pressure, I guess, to try and keep the season alive as long as possible, to keep my career going for a few more games.
"It's going to be awful once I'm done. I don't know what I'm going to do. So I'm trying to not think about it too much. I get a little sad otherwise."
You are Chelsea Armstrong and, though you will be sad when the end does come, you will still be well-prepared to carry on. You, after all, already have a degree in economics and are busy now in graduate school and have a solid boyfriend named Hunter Bates, who just happens to play safety for the football 'Cats...
"I'm looking for a job right now, trying to decide. People have asked me about coaching and things like that. But I really haven't made up my mind where I want to go with my career. But as an economics major, I'm looking into some finance-y sort of stuff.
"At this stage I'm trying to stay in the States. I like it over here.
"Football's a scary sport. There's some scary moments. It's different. It's different. It's harder to watch knowing that you can't do anything, that everything's out of your control. It's hard in that aspect. It's a scary sport to watch especially when you care about the person out there getting hit.
"Playing, you just go out there and play the game. You're in control. I feel in control. You lose that control watching. When you're just up there watching, you can't tell him, "Don't run this way. Someone's going to hit you."
"We talk. I'm always pressing him for details about what's going on on the team, and what the team coming up looks like. Things like that. And he's turned into quite the field hockey fan. Field hockey's a very, I won't say an obscure sport. But not many fans watch it. So he's had a lot to learn the last couple years.
"He tries to stream all my games.
"It's good. He knows what to say after tough losses. We know how to treat each other after we come off a bad loss or a bad game or something like that. It's good to have someone with the experience of playing collegiate athletics and knowing what kind of pressure I'm under. So, yeah. He's been a real safety blanket for me, I guess you'd say.
"Yeah, I definitely try to be. You know when to give him some space, know what not to say. So it's good. I'm glad we've had these similar experiences. It's real nice having somebody who knows what it's like.
"I actually think I'm pretty normal.
"He's much more into video games than I am. I'm kind of terrible at video games.
"Have you ever heard of Australian football, the Australian Football League? I actually bought a TV package that let me watch some of those games this year. So he saw me watching some Australian football games and I was a little more vocal. I get a little bit more upset viewing those games than I do watching normal NFL games.
"So he saw a different side of me that day, that's for sure.
"My team's the Fremantle Dockers. They're purple also, which is a strange coincidence. They lost in a final game and I was not happy.
"It was an elimination game, and they were down-and-out. It was tough, tough.
"It took me a little while to get over it. But, no, I'm always pleasant to live with."