STANFORD, Calif. - No more moral victories. No more “nice match’’ or “great game.” Kelsey Harbin and the Stanford field hockey team are all about wins.
“One of the biggest things the last two years has been respect, because we demand it,” said the junior defender from Escondido, Calif. “We’ve always known we’re good enough, but teams didn’t respect us and weren’t scared to play us. And now, we have worked so hard in the offseason on finishing. The only way we’re going to earn respect is to win.”
After a tough 2-1 double-overtime loss to No. 4 Connecticut in the season-opener, the No. 6 Cardinal has rebounded with six straight victories. Harbin has been the catalyst, leading the team in goals (4), shots (25), is tied in assists (2) and is 2-2 in penalty strokes. She has also helped Stanford post a 0.69 goals allowed percentage, tops in the nation.
“That’s pretty awesome,” said the perpetually enthusiastic Harbin. “Our backfield is super-motivated. We have a lot of girls who are fast and kind of unpredictable, which is a good thing. But the defense is all about experience and being super-solid. We protect our goalie.”
The 5-foot-10 Harbin is the last line of defense.
“I play center fullback, which is the furthest defender back,” said Harbin. “I don’t get any field shots throughout the game, so I’ve really worked on my penalty corner shots and being able to come up and that’s how I’m basically able to score. I love being in the back of the field, holding down the fort.”
A three-sport athlete in high school, Harbin’s first love was basketball. She took up field hockey in sixth grade – only to follow in the footsteps of older sister Kristen – and wound up making the varsity as a freshman at San Pasqual High School. As a sophomore, Harbin played for the 2010 Youth Pan American USA team that competed in Uruguay.
“When I did that and saw the level that you could play at internationally, I just completely fell in love with the sport and everything about it,” she said. “Since then, I’ve totally committed myself to it.”
Harbin was selected to the U17 and U19 nationals squads, then represented Team USA last September at the Junior Pan American Championships.
“I’ve been really lucky to travel to Uruguay, Chile, England, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Germany and Mexico,” said Harbin. “The experience of being exposed to international play against the top teams in the world was just so valuable. The girls from Holland and Argentina have played since they were 2. Here, where are you going to find a pick-up game? It’s not going to happen.”
The West Coast isn’t exactly a hotbed for field hockey; it’s predominantly an East Coast sport. But Cardinal head coach Tara Danielson is trying to change that. She and her husband Steve, her assistant, coached Harbin in San Diego. Her junior year in high school, Harbin was heavily recruited by Princeton and verbally committed to Northwestern until she learned that Tara and Steve were heading to Stanford to rejuvenate the program.
“Once I found out Tara and Steve got the job here, I just knew they were going to make something really special happen,” Harbin said. “I could have gone somewhere that was a more established program, but I just knew what they were going to do here was big. Once you come on a visit here, how can you say no?”
Harbin was Danielson’s first recruit at Stanford and is grateful she took a leap of faith and shared her vision of success.
“I think that’s what really makes Kelsey special is that she’s willing to take the risk,” said Danielson. “As long as it’s right and she feels like it’s a good fit, Kelsey is willing to take the road less traveled in order to be successful.
“What’s different about Kelsey is although she has all these individual goals in hockey, she is the ultimate team player. She takes risks for the betterment of herself and the betterment of the program.”
Harbin said East Coast bias is no myth. She’s had to constantly prove herself.
“It’s funny, because being from San Diego and playing on an international team where all the girls are from the East Coast is the exact same thing as how it is playing at Stanford against East Coast schools,” she said. “There definitely is a thing like, ‘Who are these people from California?’ I think that taught me right away to not care what anyone else thinks I’m capable of and go after it.”
Danielson considers Harbin the backbone of the team.
“Her enthusiasm is infectious,” she said. “When she steps on the field, she wants it. That spreads very quickly. She leads by example and inspires you to join her. ”
Initially, Danielson wasn’t sure how she would replace Becky Dru, a two-time All-American and two-time NorPac Player of the Year. So far, Harbin has filled the void.
“She always brings tempo, intensity and toughness,” said Danielson. “She just has the grit and work ethic. She does all the little things. She’s a very competitive but likeable person and wants to put Stanford field hockey on the map.”
Harbin also wants to play for the U.S. Olympic team, a goal Danielson believes is well within reach.
“Right now, I wouldn’t put a ceiling on what Kelsey can achieve,” she said. “She can achieve anything she puts her mind to.”
That includes completing her degree in human biology, attending medical school and becoming a physician’s assistant. Like all Stanford student-athletes, Harbin has had to learn how to balance academics with sports.
“Last winter, I was in Australia for a tour so I missed the first three weeks of school,” said Harbin. “That’s what really sets us apart from other teams – the academics here are so challenging. And, the other kids you are going against are going to be the top doctors in the nation or the world. I Skyped into a lot of my sections – they’ll just sit me in the front and let me ask a lot of questions. And my TAs and teammates have helped me out a lot. It’s been difficult, but that’s why you can be so proud of being a student-athlete here.”
Harbin’s favorite place on campus is the Bender Room in Green Library.
“It’s on the fifth floor and there are these huge open windows,” she said. “It’s just so Stanford. You can sit and study – I would sit there for finals for hours and hours. And then you’re like, ‘Okay, I need a break.’ And then you walk over to the windows and you can see the whole Stanford campus and it’s just like, I can’t believe I go here.”
This weekend, the team travels east to play No. 5 Syracuse and No. 11 Albany. It’s another opportunity for players to prove themselves against quality competition, with the ultimate goal of reaching the NCAA Championship in November.
Said Harbin, “When we walk onto the field, especially against top teams, we just have an attitude like, ‘You don’t know who we are or what is coming at you. We are going to make the next 70 minutes of your life miserable and you’re always going to remember this game.’ They’re not going to enjoy any bit of it.”
That said, Stanford has never won an NCAA Tournament game, something Danielson calls the “pink elephant in the room.” Harbin and her teammates would like to change that this year.
“No more, ‘We were close,’ ’’ she said. “The seniors are so sick of being that team. You only get a few opportunities in those big games. One tip, one shot, one rebound – that’s all it takes. We’ve gotten to the point where it’s not acceptable to miss those opportunities. I don’t care if we’re playing No. 1 or No. 30, we expect to win every game. Every single person buys into the game plan and every person wants it. And they want it for each other. And that’s so special.”