By JUSTIN LORING
In the last five years, the UNH field hockey team has been one of the most consistent and successful programs on campus. Highlighted by five consecutive trips to the America East championship game and two titles (2011 and 2013), the coaching staff has also won four straight coaching staff of the year awards from 2010-13.
A large part of that coaching staff is Ross Gorham. Gorham has been a staple of the UNH field hockey program since his days as an undergrad, but got his start in the sport long before college.
“My aunt was a high school coach for 35 years in the state of Maine and had one of the top programs in the state,” Gorham said. “All of my cousins played, so I was surrounded at a very young age and my sister was involved, so I tagged along. I got my actual start, in terms of playing, through one of the festivals with her club team.”
Gorham played in a pick-up style game at the festival that was co-ed and drew the attention of the U.S. men’s national coach. It was primarily a recruiting event for college coaches to get a glimpse of top-tier players and Gorham said he “fell onto the team,” since they needed an extra player. The unfortunate thing for Gorham was that the program was almost entirely based in the West Coast.
“I got invited into taking an actual step [toward] playing on a full side with guys, which [was] different, new and challenging,” Gorham said. “It was by chance that I fell into a situation where those people were watching and involved.”
When making a final decision of where to attend, Gorham spoke of head coach Robin Balducci’s support of someone who wanted to play the sport and also had experience playing at a high level. Gorham felt it was the most comfortable situation for him to come to UNH, to have an opportunity to play with the United States’ men’s national championship team, and also be involved with the UNH program.
“I didn’t come for the first preseason [as a freshman], but after that anytime the program was running, I was around,” Gorham said. “Obviously [Balducci] was great with being able to give me the opportunity. She knew my aunt, so that helped, but just trusting that this random guy wasn’t coming just for no reason, but he’s wanting to be a part of what’s going on.”
Gorham described the beginning of his playing career as “rough”. Having to balance a travel schedule to Chula Vista, California along with school wasn’t easy. Balducci gave him the freedom to travel whenever he needed and kept him included with the program when he was able to come to practice. Being a Kinesiology: Sport Studies major, Gorham had a coaching minor built into his major and was able to schedule his classes around both teams.
The men’s national program is broken into regional areas which players have to make before being selected for the national team. At the time of Gorham played, there was a two-week, high-performance tournament which pitted the regional teams against one another.
As far as the differences between playing on a men’s team and coaching a women’s team, Gorham said one of the most important things is to learn a player’s individual motivating factors are.
“The cool thing about this program and the stage we’re on in the NCAA is putting together a tough schedule, winning games and having that expectation of being good,” Gorham said. “Playing in the men’s versus coaching in the women’s, there’s certainly some differences in terms of game style. The physicality and pace is a little different, so there’s some skill or tactical pieces that may change, but the game itself is pretty much similar both ways.”
Balducci said her first exposure to Gorham was in talking with his aunt, who tipped her off as to his past and interest in the sport.
“I trusted he was a good kid, we had him come in and play some pick up with the team in the summer and he kind of ‘passed the test’, so to speak. I figured I knew his aunt well enough that I could lower the boom if I needed to,” Balducci said with a laugh.
“The big thing for me was that he was willing to take initiative to try to get involved, that was a big step because he didn’t have to get involved in working with the field hockey program. I saw he was committed to trying to see if he could continue playing and what he could do, so clearly I wanted to help that process, just in terms of what we do as coaches.”
Balducci has long been a proponent of getting the women in her program to get involved in coaching and becoming role models for younger players. Switching from a Biology major to a Sport Studies major, Balducci felt it was a good responsibility to help him develop his career.
“With women athletes, we try to get them coaching opportunities in the summer and, selfishly, it keeps them playing hockey, but also I think our sport needs that. We need coaches. That’s part of my bigger job is to mentor or try to help our sport [grow]. That was my take on it. My philosophy is, in terms of Ross’ playing, he was looking at a career in coaching in a long-term [goal]. I wanted to support that.”
Balducci expressed concern over the influx of male coaches coming to the U.S. from Europe. She felt that since there was more money in coaching, a lot of these coaches were coming over and not looking at the long-term goal of coaching, nor looking to do what’s best for the sport as a whole.
“I’m not a big proponent of women needing a male voice; they need a strong female voice first,” Balducci said. “Women need to be disciplined and structured by other women, to managed by other women … I think the stereotypical thing is that women have a hard time seeing a woman being strong and opinionated and tough. I think that’s a positive for women to see that, because I’m hoping that a lot of women and female athletes are going to represent [being strong]. I hope they’re going to portray a strong, confident, secure female and I think it’s important for them to have those examples.”
Balducci felt that Gorham brought a good example to the team, not being a yeller, but rather describing him as “even-keeled” and not being “overly strong opinionated”. She likes that he isn’t trying to show the players that it’s “my way or the highway,” because she needs a different personality from her assistants.
“I want the athletes to feel good about asking questions if they think it’s not the right thing to ask,” Balducci said.
Fellow assistant Claire Grogan started her career as a walk-on in 2009 and her first impression of Gorham was that he was an “international 30-year old.”
“I grew up with a lot of women coaching me in field hockey and my only experience with men was at the international stage,” Grogan said. “Being a freshman and not [having] a huge role on the team, you work more with the assistants, so I spent a lot of time with him trying to understand the game tactically.”
Grogan said the biggest thing Gorham was able to accomplish was personalizing each player’s style of play to what the team’s game plan was.
“He does a lot of his coaching individually, not in front of the whole group, but it really helped me [as a player] because I could immediately change what I was doing to be better.”
As far as coaching influence, Grogan highlighted Gorham’s ability to connect with the women on the team and see things from their perspective, something she felt is something a lot of people might overlook. She noted he could present criticism in a way that the players could listen to and “not take offense to”.
Prior to Grogan’s involvement, former player Meg Shea was an assistant with the team. Gorham echoed Balducci’s emphasis on the importance of having alumni involved in coaching.
“Having people that are alums of the program is absolutely a cornerstone of why it works,” Gorham said. “There’s an understanding of what we do and why we do what we do, and that can be different than some of our competitors.”
Of the 2013 class, all four seniors have found jobs coaching the sport they love. Casey Pohlmeyer is a teacher and will be coaching high school down in Maryland, Megan Bozek went to Boston College as an assistant, Melyssa Woods coaches at Vermont and Hannah Richard is working as an assistant at Bucknell.
“It’s awesome … I’m very proud of the fact that we have so many athletes in coaching, because one of the things that I think our sport more than a lot of other women’s sports needs are the good Division I athletes getting back into the program,” Balducci said. “We need the women who played at high levels to be back coaching for the good and the growth of the sport … that, combined with having a coaching minor at the University, that makes us a little different than some schools.”
UNH has two spring sessions coming up in April. On April 11, the team will host the first day of the tournament and face Maine, Northeastern and Dartmouth. The tournament will move to Northeastern and the ‘Cats will face Holy Cross, Providence and Bryant. The team will play two more tournaments after that (April 18 and 26), at Boston College and UMass Amherst.
Behind the guidance of Balducci, Gorham and Grogan, next year’s team will look to compete for their third America East title in six years. The team has faced Albany in all of their title game appearances and, with next year’s team having seven seniors, will look to take down the Great Danes in what has become one of the biggest rivalries on campus.