Iowa field hockey's Drake flourishing away from home


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Ann Arbor was split right down the middle on a late November afternoon in 2008. The brisk autumn air breezed through the University of Michigan’s Phyllis Ocker Field as Sarah Drake began her warm-up routine.

The Michigan prep state field-hockey championship attracted a big crowd. Fans sporting purple and green — for Pioneer and Huron high school, respectively — lined the pitch, standing shoulder to shoulder, nearly five people deep in every direction.

Drake recalled the moment as special. Not many high-school athletes got to play on a college hockey pitch. She remembers stepping onto the turf and looking up to see her biggest fans in the bleachers — Mom, Dad, and older sister Katharine. She smiled but then quickly focused her attention on the game.

It seems as if Drake’s final high-school field-hockey match — she led Pioneer to a 2-0 victory — would have made for the perfect segue into a college career at Michigan. But the Ann Arbor girl wasn’t thinking about Michigan.

“I was with my high-school team in the present moment, but in my head, I was moving on to bigger and better things,” Drake said now, referring to Iowa. “I knew that I was going to be back on that turf, but it wasn’t going to be for the team I frequently saw every day.

“That made me excited, because I knew I would be able to come back with another team of my own, sporting different colors.”

The influence of the Big House

It’s a Saturday fall morning in Ann Arbor, and the students at the University of Michigan are yawning their way out of bed. It’s just past 9 a.m., causing Michigan students to throw on something blue and grab their football tickets on their way out the door to tailgate.

The streets flood with Michigan apparel. The smell of brats fills the air. At any point, you can hear the Victors blaring loudly from surrounding tents. Radio shows talk about how former quarterback Chad Henne could beat Michigan State any day but could never defeat the Buckeyes.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the influence of the Big House,” Sarah’s father, Dee Drake says.
Football Saturdays are a huge part of why those who grow up in Ann Arbor become Michigan students. More than 100,000 fans fill Michigan Stadium, commonly known as the Big House, creating an intoxicating atmosphere. The Drake family was no exception — Sarah Drake knew it as “the fever.”

But she didn’t catch the fever. She rarely went to football games. When she did, she worked, earning $100 a game by serving pizza to those sitting in the suites. Those fall Saturdays aren’t what comes to mind when she thinks of her hometown.

“I don’t know that there are that many people back home that will say that,” she said. “That’s not what I think of when I think of Ann Arbor.”

‘I didn’t want to spoil it’

The best way to describe Ann Arbor, through the eyes of Drake, is to see the parts of town that are separate from the university.

“For most people, if they have never been there, they immediately associate it with the university, she said. “That’s fine and great, because it is a great school. But for me, it’s different.”

She recalls going fishing with her mother, Madeline Drake, at Gallup Park fishing pond just east of Huron Parkway. She remembers taking her younger neighbors to the Summer Festival downtown on the days that she baby-sat.

She loved playing soccer growing up, and she remembers the trips with her team when they traveled for tournaments. And her eyes light up when you mention her high-school field-hockey team and its string of wins — Pioneer won four-consecutive state championships while she played.

Those memories make up the memory of her hometown. Her family, friends, and athletics helped to make Drake’s Ann Arbor different, yet unforgettable.

“I got really, really lucky,” she said. “I think it’s awesome I have such a great place to go home to. That’s one of the main reasons I left. I didn’t want to spoil it by extending my stay.”

Overcoming the disadvantages

As a sophomore in high school, Sarah made the decision to focus solely on field hockey. She dropped soccer, a sport she had played since she could remember. Having played soccer for years helped her on the field-hockey pitch. Her ability to read the field was crucial — being able to see where certain players are, what their objectives were, and where to pass helped a lot.

It wasn’t a seamless transition. She first picked up a field-hockey stick in seventh grade while playing with the middle-school team. By then, everyone who had been playing had superior stick skills. She was at a huge tactical disadvantage.

But her father helped her develop a stronger technique. Dee Drake played recreational pond hockey in Ann Arbor, and he had an idea of what his daughter would need to know.

The two spent hours in the garage working on stick technique. Dee Drake used his ice-hockey stick rather than a field-hockey stick, but the time helped immensely, even if the conditions weren’t ideal.

“We broke a few things in the garage over the years, firing the ball around,” he said and laughed.
There was still a drawback as Sarah played more competitively: her height. She hasn’t grown an inch since fifth grade, she reports. On a good day, she stands, maybe, 5-1, said her older sister.

Sarah made up for the obstacle by creating what she called a “mutual respect” on the field. She didn’t want to be overlooked because of her height.

“I remember in high school, Sarah just rocked this girl,” older sister Katharine Drake said. “This girl was so much bigger than her, and [Sarah] was like, ‘Get out of my way.’ When you see a shorter girl put a girl who’s nearly a foot taller on the ground, it’s funny and awesome.”

Coming to Iowa City

Before her junior year at Pioneer, Sarah and high-school coach Jane Nixon played a pickup game in the Michigan Coliseum. Very casually, Nixon asked if Drake considered playing field hockey in college.

Surprised, Sarah admitted she hadn’t seriously thought about it. Nixon thought she should.
“I said, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Drake said. “She told me I should start looking into Big Ten schools, and I was like, ‘Oh my God. You’re crazy. There’s no way.’ ”

She followed the recruiting process that year, putting her name out where Big Ten schools would notice. She received a letter from Iowa. Michigan caught wind and worked quickly to try to keep the Pioneer girl in town.

“There were girls in my high-school program who were good enough to play in college, and those who were went to Michigan,” she said. “What I wanted to do was take my own path and do my own thing. I thought if I was good enough to play at Michigan, I would be good enough to play at other schools.”

Iowa offered her an official visit. Upon returning home, she decided: She would wear Black and Gold for the next four years.

“I didn’t even end up taking the visit to Michigan,” the senior said and laughed.

Amid the corn and farm jokes, she knew Iowa was the perfect fit. It emulated the same philosophy as Pioneer, emphasizing a passion for the game and specializing in hard work and technique. The team would work until it was the best. No shortcuts involved.

“I remember her playing aggressively and not shying away from anything,” Iowa field-hockey head coach Tracey Griesbaum said. “She’s a hard worker and has really put out her best performances for this team. We really appreciate that.”

Going back to Michigan

When Drake went back to Michigan in late September 2009, she was overwhelmed with support — almost to the point where she thought it was a home game.

Family members arrived at Ocker Field to watch the hometown girl compete against Michigan. School teachers from Pioneer, former teammates, and other fans filled the stands.

“Everyone came out to watch her play,” Katharine Drake said. She came, too, and cheered for her little sister, not as an Iowa fan but as a Sarah Drake fan.

“In the beginning, it was a little weird cheering against Michigan, but I love my little sister,” she said.
Plenty of Pioneer field-hockey girls have now looked out of state, attempting to follow in Sarah Drake’s footsteps. Back home, in the heart of Michigan country, Dee Drake has an Iowa flag hanging out on his front porch, showing support for his youngest daughter whom he’s so very proud of.

But for Sarah Drake, the journey isn’t over. In the same way her mind was focused on Iowa when she last played on Ocker Field, it remains that way each time she returns. “I’m just concentrating on the here and now,” she said, and she wouldn’t trade anything she has here in Iowa City for going back to Michigan.

“In the end,  everything has a funny way of working out,” she said.

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