9:12 PM EDT, June 2, 2012
When Melissa Gonzalez first went to UConn, she was a soccer recruit.
When she graduated in 2011, she was one of the top collegiate field hockey players in the country.
This week, Gonzalez, 23, will be working toward becoming the first UConn field hockey player since 1996 to make the U.S. Olympic team.
"I'd be shocked if she didn't make it," her coach at UConn, Nancy Stevens, said Friday.
Gonzalez, a midfielder from Mohegan Lake, N.Y., will find out June 23 when the 16-member team (with two alternates) is announced. This week, she is playing in the Women's National Field Hockey championships in College Park, Md., as part of the selection process. She has been on the national team for the past two years, and last October she helped the U.S. win the gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Mexico, which qualified the team to participate in the Olympics. In the gold medal game, the U.S. beat top-seeded Argentina 4-2 after losing to the Argentines in five of the past six Pan Am competitions.
"It was a big step for us as a team," Gonzalez said. "Going into the Olympics, it shows the potential we could have."
At Lakeland High School in Shrub Oak, N.Y., girls could play field hockey in the fall and soccer in the spring, so Gonzalez embraced both — and was an All-American in both. Her older sisters played field hockey and she started playing the sport in seventh grade.
But she loved soccer, too, and played for both her school and club teams. In her junior year, the schools switched soccer to the fall. Gonzalez opted to play field hockey for her school because she had nowhere else to play the sport. She played soccer for her club in the spring.
She was initially a soccer recruit at UConn. But she checked out the field hockey program when she was there.
"We couldn't recruit against [women's soccer coach] Lenny [Tsantiris]," Stevens said. "I didn't. We said, 'We just want you to be a UConn Husky.'"
Stevens said that Gonzalez's high school coach most likely influenced her decision.
"[Lakeland coach] Sharon [Sarsen], I would imagine, encouraged her to pick field hockey," Stevens said.
By her senior year, Gonzalez was an All-American and a two-time Big East defensive player of the year. A midfielder, she scored 27 goals and had 14 assists in her four-year career.
"She was never going to get the [conference] offensive player of the year, because she wasn't a forward and she was the stopper on [penalty] corners," Stevens said. "You're not going to get that award unless you're a high scorer in the conference. We always put her up for Defensive Player. She was the best player in the conference, but we don't pick a player of the year."
Gonzalez has improved quite a bit since college, mainly because she has played against some of the best players in the world. Against Argentina, Gonzalez had to match up with Luciana Aymar, the seven-time World Field Hockey Player of the Year, whose skills with the stick are compared to countryman Diego Maradona's.
"International hockey is a lot different than college hockey — the speed, the communication levels," Gonzalez said.
The only two UConn players to make the Olympic team were Diane Madl (now the coach at Providence) and Tracey Fuchs. Fuchs made it in 1988 and 1996, Madl in 1996. The U.S. field hockey team did not qualify for the 2000 or 2004 Olympic Games, so there were no opportunities during those years.
"It's pretty awesome to get this opportunity," Gonzalez said. "Every time I step on the field, I want to play the best I am able to, to give a performance I'm happy with. I know the decision's out of my hands."
Copyright © 2015, The Hartford Courant