Cal Field Hockey: Brynn Zorilla Copes With Unknowns After Season is Postponed

Jeff Faraudo

Junior midfielder Brynn Zorilla and her teammates on the Cal field hockey team have some clarity for the short term that other fall sport athletes on campus still await.

It wasn’t surprising but it certainly wasn’t good news last week when the America East Conference announced its fall season would be postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Cal teams that participate in the Pac-12 still wonder about the status of their fall seasons.

(And yes, Cal plays field hockey in a league featuring small colleges from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey and New York).

“To not be able to have this fall season is definitely disappointing, but I mean given everything that’s been going on right now it wasn’t super-unexpected,” Zorilla says of the decision. “We’ll be ready (to play) when the time comes, but I guess that won’t be anytime soon.”

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Shellie Onstead, set to begin her 26th year as Cal’s head coach, called the America East’s decision “inevitable,” given the nation’s dire health challenges.

“In the end, my job is to develop young women and sports is a vehicle,” she says. “But I also have to keep them safe and I was having trouble figuring out how I was going to do that with certainty.”

Zorilla is one of Cal’s best players, a two-time All-America East selection and a member of the U.S. under-21 national team. Her activities this summer with that team also were shelved.

“Unfortunately, it was supposed to be a pretty packed summer,” she says, alluding to test matches the team was scheduled to play against England and Ireland in preparation for the Junior Pan American Games in November. That event is now moved to April.

“That was a big bummer not to be able to play in those and compete as a team,” Zorilla laments.

The upheaval resulting from the America East decision had a profound effect on Cal backfielder Callie Rose Goodman, a senior from Atherton. Goodman, who plans to graduate in December and enroll in grad school, informed Onstead this week that she won’t play her final season with the Bears.

Meanwhile, Zorilla stayed busy this spring, attending to online classwork and drawing inspiration from a cousin who works on the frontlines at a hospital in New York. “I felt like I could be doing more,” she explains.

So Zorilla initiated an online fund-raising effort for the San Francisco Food Bank, also getting support from the field hockey programs at Stanford and UC Davis. They generated more than $4,000 in May, a total that was matched by an anonymous donor.

Just when it seemed the news on the field hockey front couldn’t get more discouraging, Stanford announced it was permanently dropping 11 sports, 10 of them Olympic sports. Included on the list: field hockey.

Zorilla calls it “devastating news,” explaining that she has played with or against many of the women on the Stanford team since they were kids.

“And just to see their team taken away from them is gut-wrenching.”

Brynn Zorilla plays for the U.S. U21 national team
Cal junior Brynn ZorillaPhoto by Al Sermeno, KLC fotos

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The Cardinal's announcement leads to an obvious question: If Stanford’s athletic department, with its rich endowments and deep pockets, can eliminate 11 sports, what might happen when finances become even more challenging at Cal?

Athletic director Jim Knowlton has called cutting sports “a last resort,” and says Chancellor Carol Christ is on board with that position. But the pandemic is creating havoc, and Zorilla acknowledges an uneasy feeling.

“Shellie’s been really reassuring,” Zorilla said. “She’s been told that we’re OK for now, that our sport will be fine and we’ll be able to keep going.

“But it’s definitely scary, given how unprecedented everything has been right now that we can say one thing but then a few things happen and all of a sudden it gets to that last resort.”

Onstead was a star player at Cal in the infancy of its field hockey program. She is a former U.S. Olympic team assistant coach and has worked for a quarter-century to help grow what is primarily an East Coast game at the college level.

But with Stanford’s exit from the sport one year after Pacific walked away, the West Coast is left with just two Division I hockey programs — Cal and Davis.

Asked if she remains confident field hockey will survive at Berkeley, Onstead says her worries extend beyond her own program.

“I am very confident in my footing at Cal as I am with Davis,” she says. “My concern runs bigger, with the landscape of Olympic sports as a whole. COVID is shining a really bright light on what’s upside down in sports right now, with Olympic vs revenue sports.”

While acknowledging that football revenue helps fund most other sports on campus, Onstead says the arrangement has become “untenable.”

“Unfortunately, the revenue sports are existing at the expense of the Olympics sports,” she says. “It’s broken. It’s upside down.”

Division I schools across the country — including Akron, Boise State, Brown, Cincinnati, UConn, Dartmouth, East Carolina, Florida International, Furman, Old Dominion, Southern Utah, Winthrop, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wright State — have cut sports. Most of the casualties are Olympic sports.

*** This story, by SI’s Pat Forde, takes a closer look at the impact of colleges cutting sports as a result of COVID-19.

Besides the big schools, dozens of programs have been axed at the Divisions II and III levels, not to mention NAIA and junior college.

Onstead suggests the NCAA should reinvent itself, allowing football and basketball to compete at essentially a “semi-pro” level while Olympic sports break away and operate separately, perhaps under the management of each sport’s national governing body.

“The footprint is too big. Now COVID comes along and it’s a convenient cover to reduce sports and programs,” she says. “We need it all to make the world turn. I’m furious because I feel like the few and the powerful are stomping on the little guys.”

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo

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