Sept. 14, 2009
By SCOTT HAMMER, Asst. Director of Athletic Communications
Standing just 5-feet tall, Tracey Fuchs is not the type of person one might glance at and immediately label "hockey player."
But that's precisely what she has been for as long as she can remember. Growing up on Long Island as the third in a family of four athletic girls, Fuchs never had to look far to find a competitive pickup game of street or ice hockey, especially considering the Fuchs clan lived next door to a family of five boys.
Maybe the group could have benefited had a referee moved in around the corner.
"Those games were for blood," Fuchs said. "We played street hockey every day, all day Saturday and Sunday, and usually their father joined in. If I had to thank someone for my competitiveness, it would be my sisters and the five Ferry boys next door."
Fuchs made the transition to the field hockey pitch during her teenage years and eventually developed into a two-time Olympian, 14-year captain of the USA National Team and arguably the greatest player the country has ever produced. Last January, Fuchs signed on as head coach of Northwestern and is now focused intently on returning NU to the status of national contender that it maintained for so long in the 1980's and '90's.
It was during those years that Fuchs--despite her small frame--was proving herself as one of the most durable and reliable players in U.S. field hockey history, playing in more international games (268) than any other American while scoring 69 goals.
Fuchs' drive and determination to represent her country were born in part from watching the USA's Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics, a moment she has commemorated in her office with a photo signed by the American goaltender that day, Jim Craig. She counts among her own "goosebump" moments from her international career entering the Olympic stadium in Atlanta in 1996 and defeating Germany for the bronze medal at the World Championships in 1994 when the Americans were picked to finish 11th.
"I feel so fortunate to be able to say that a stick and a ball took me to six out of seven continents and all around the world," Fuchs said.
But despite all her time spent on the international scene, Fuchs is by no means a newcomer to knowing what it takes to win in the Big Ten. She spent the last 12 seasons as an associate head coach at Michigan, helping guide the Wolverines to three Big Ten championships, six NCAA Tournament appearances and the 2001 NCAA title.
When Fuchs arrived in Ann Arbor in 1996, she and head coach Marcia Pankratz inherited a Michigan program that was wallowing in mediocrity, having never qualified for the NCAA Tournament. In just three seasons, Michigan reached the NCAA's field of 16 and two years later had completed its rise to the top by winning the national championship.
According to Fuchs, the similarities between Michigan's program in 1996 and the Northwestern squad she took over this season are too obvious to ignore.
"They're almost identical situations," Fuchs said. "Both programs have great athletes and it's just a matter of getting them to believe they can win and be successful. We need them to buy into our philosophy and embrace it--which can be hard to do for 18 to 21-year-olds because sometimes you take steps backward before you move forward--but our girls have responded so well to it already."
Many Wildcats began buying into what the future held from the minute that Northwestern director of athletics Jim Phillips informed them who had been hired as their new head coach.
"(Tracey) has a great reputation in the game and everyone knows her name," said NU senior Stacy Uchida. "Our administrators came to us and just started reading a laundry list of her accolades as a player and a coach. There have also been a few rule changes recently and I think we've picked up on the strategies faster because Tracey and (associate head coach) Carla (Tagliente) were coaching internationally this summer."
For Fuchs, this summer's coaching endeavors included wrapping up her fourth year as head coach of the U.S. Junior National Team, a squad composed mostly of the top players plucked from the college game. Fuchs, who was named the USA Field Hockey National Coach of the Year in 2005, led the Americans to an eighth-place finish at the 2009 Junior World Cup in Boston last month.
Since then, Fuchs has turned her attention squarely on doing what it takes to help Northwestern enjoy maximum success in her first season at the helm. For starters, Fuchs needed to find a way to utilize the talents of newcomer Chelsea Armstrong, a transfer from the University of Western Australia who decided to attend Northwestern shortly after Fuchs was named head coach. A defender with her club team in Australia, Armstrong made the shift to forward for the 'Cats and has since lit up the scoreboard, scoring six goals through NU's first five games and earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors.
"Chelsea could probably play any position on the field and excel," Fuchs said. "She has great instincts and we play a similar style to how they play in Australia so she has been a big plus on and off the field for our program."
After knocking in three goals during Northwestern's season-opening defeats of Boston University and Ohio--including the overtime game-winner in her debut against the Terriers--Armstrong clearly had no regrets about her last-minute decision to leave the land Down Under for the American Midwest.
"My club coach had a connection with Carla and asked if I'd be interested in coming over here and at first I said no," Armstrong said. "Then I thought about it and after a week decided to try something different. I was basically just playing club at my old school, playing with older ladies and younger girls, and I had to get on the computer and do some research on the NCAA and the Big Ten. I'm used to playing in the back at home so I definitely didn't expect to get on the board so early playing forward."
Along with a pair of senior attackers in Courtney Plaster-Strange and Elizabeth Dobbs, Armstrong has helped Northwestern sprint to a 4-1 start to the Tracey Fuchs era, with the only loss coming to defending NCAA champion and top-ranked Maryland.
"Tracey gets really involved when she's coaching in practice and she likes to play an attacking style," Armstrong said. "I think we have the pieces to improve our standing in the Big Ten and maybe even make it to the NCAAs. They're high hopes but I think with Tracey and the team we've got it's not too far-fetched."
As expected, Fuchs spent plenty of time early in her college and international playing careers proving to coaches and opposing players that her diminutive size was not a detriment but an asset to her game, summoning the grit she learned in those neighborhood street hockey games.
"When I first joined the national team they thought I was too small so I was really tough and feisty," Fuchs said. "Not dirty, but I made sure everybody knew I could hang. Once I was established and people knew that wasn't an issue, I evolved into more of a passer; I loved setting people up and making players around me look good."
All indications are that while small in stature on the sideline, Fuchs is setting Northwestern field hockey up for long-term success in a big way.