For years, Cape Henlopen High’s field hockey team has set the standard for excellence. What’s the secret of Cape’s success? An unbeatable combination of ingredients: coaching, preparation, family support — and players’ commitment to give their all.
By Jack Rodgers | Photograph by Dan Cook
From the September 2016 Issue
The attacks always came from the sea. The raiding parties traveled to all points of the compass, pushed by winds from the frigid lands of the north. Their longboats plowed through the waves, and upon landfall issued ax-wielding invaders, against whom defense was impossible. For centuries, coastal inhabitants would hope against hope for deliverance from the Norsemen’s wrath.
To the modern day opponents of Cape Henlopen’s vaunted field hockey team, an arriving bus carrying the feared Lady Vikings might seem akin to a longboat of yore, given the steep odds of defeating Cape on the field of battle. Their sticks are not sharpened, but, deftly handled, they can strike a ball with authority and accuracy.
Yes, the metaphor may be too grand, but coaches whose teams have never beaten the juggernaut from coastal Sussex County ruefully remember the brutal defeats. Most painful of all are surely the near misses — games when a luckier bounce here or official’s judgment there could have tipped the balance their way.
“Cape,” notes former Lady Vikings coach Nicole Hughes, “is everybody’s rival!”
She’s right. In today’s world of scholastic field hockey, Cape Henlopen is the team to beat. The current edition is riding a wave of five straight state championships, which is unprecedented in the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association. It is a proud history, this Cape field hockey dynasty, replete with legendary tales such as the 1995 state title game that took an unbelievable 168 minutes, eight overtimes and stretched over two days to complete. The fact that such a triumph was not recorded in runes makes it no less historic or dramatic.
How has Cape been able to sustain such a string of success in a sport that, prior to the combined Sussex Tech/Cape Henlopen state title run that began in 2009, had been largely in the grip of Delaware’s more northern regions? The first place one must look is the helm, where captains of the ship have shaped and steered the program.
Perhaps it’s the fishing heritage of the region that has allowed Cape to reel in such fine coaches. Whatever the reason, the timeline of their achievements extends from Carolyn Ivins in 1979, when the first field hockey state title for any downstate school was won, to Ruth Skoglund, who won a championship in 1995, to Nicole Hughes’s triumph in 2011 and Kate Austin’s current streak of four straight. Consistent throughout this timespan has been coaches who were noted for their prowess and had been solid players themselves.
Austin is a classic example. Named the Tubby Raymond Coach of the Year by the Delaware Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association in January, she was a four-year contributor at Caesar Rodney High and part of the team that won the school’s only state title, in 2004. (To underscore her pedigree: That team was coached by Debbie Windett, Kate’s mother.) She next played at the University of Richmond and the University of Delaware. Since taking command at Cape, Austin has amassed a record similar to that of the Harlem Globetrotters versus the hapless Washington Generals, racking up an astonishing 74 wins against just one loss and one tie.
The thrill hasn’t gotten old. “Winning a state championship is one of the best feelings in the world,” Austin says. “The final seconds are surreal. Playing for a championship was much easier than coaching a team in the final. As a player, I had control over things that happen on the field. As a coach, I can just prepare all the girls to the best of my ability and hope they make the best decisions on the field. As a player, those thoughts were never running through my mind. I’ve played hockey since I could walk and hold a stick, and making game-time decisions was second nature by that point.”
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