Goalie’s illustrious career finishes strong

McSweeney ’15 sets all-time saves record, installs winning culture for field hockey team

Sports Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2014

In four years tending the Bruno net, Shannon McSweeney ’15 used a ‘warrior’ mentality to turn the field hockey program around.

When All-Ivy goalie Shannon McSweeney ’15 pulls her helmet over her head — just before the whistle blows — she doesn’t see a 100 x 60 yard piece of wet astroturf.

She sees a battlefield.

When she sees an opponent’s shot flying towards her, it’s not traveling at 80 miles per hour at a 10 degree angle above the ground.

It’s just a ball, and she has one objective — keep it out of the back of the net.

It wasn’t always that way for McSweeney: According to assistant coach Jillian Brown, she was “very analytical on the field and very focused on the trajectory of the ball” during games in her first year.

“We needed her to play less with her head and more with her heart,” Brown said. “Our solution was that she would be a warrior once she put on her helmet. From the minute it went on to the end of the game or practice, it was all heart. Once it was off, she had free reign to analyze anything she wanted. It stuck through the years, and certainly her career performances have shown it. I always told her at the end of warmup on game days: ‘Be a warrior today’.”

It wasn’t an easy transition for McSweeney: She spent much of her childhood judging the angular velocity of pitches from behind home plate, and while other girls were wielding the grip of a field hockey stick, she was gripping a softball bat.

“Growing up, I played softball my whole childhood, and I was a catcher. But my town was really good at field hockey, and it was a really popular girls’ sport,” she said.

So when McSweeney reached the seventh grade at RJ Grey Junior High in Acton, Massachusetts, she decided to try the sport so many of her hometown friends had already been playing.

“I decided to try out in seventh grade — the first year I could play — and we didn’t have a goalie, so I figured being a goalie would be really similar to being a catcher,” she said.

McSweeney went on to turn her high school field hockey career at Phillips Andover Academy into a starting spot on Brown’s roster her first year. From there, she embarked on a collegiate career that ended with her earning Bruno’s career saves record, season saves record, two All-Ivy honorable mentions, an All-Ivy second and first team selection as a junior and a senior, respectively, and three NFHCA National Academic Squad selections. Ten years later, all signs point to her decision to try field hockey as being a good one.
“I just kind of put on the gear and tried it out, and I really liked it. I kind of always thought I would go back to playing field once a goalie showed up,” she said with a laugh. “But it never really happened.”

For McSweeney, the college decision was never really about sports. When she started looking at colleges, her primary focus was academics, so she looked at Ivy League schools as well as Stanford.
And Brown — with Tara Harrington ’94 as the field hockey coach when McSweeney was recruited — was always a first-choice for the star goalie.

Head Coach Jill Reeve “wasn’t the coach that recruited me. She came in when I was a first-year,” she said. “The former coach, Tara Harrington, was somebody I always felt comfortable around. She was really encouraging and really talked about how the team was such a family and how everyone was really close. She had played at Brown so that added to the feeling of it being very familial, comfortable and just overall the right fit.”

When McSweeney first came to College Hill, she had to adjust not only to the new surroundings, but also to a new coach. Reeve came into Brown with an illustrious resume — an Olympian with 12 years of experience on the U.S. national team, she turned the University of Miami in Ohio’s program into a perennial contender for Mid-American Conference titles and was inducted into the USA Field Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014.

“I think there’s more that I didn’t realize I should be looking for that (Reeve) did bring to the table,” McSweeney said. “Her drive to push us to be the best we could be and become a top program, that was something that, if I had not had that type of intensity, I would have been disappointed.”

Thrust into the spotlight in 2011, McSweeney started her first game and every single game after that, taking over for Lauren Kessler ’11 and a team that had gone 6-10-1 and 3-3-1 in Ivy League play — Brown’s best season since 2006.

It took McSweeney only two games to record her first win, a five-save effort in a 3-2 victory over the University of California-Davis. The rest of her first season was mired with struggles not only for her but also for the whole team; The Bears finished 4-13 and did not record a single Ivy win. McSweeney allowed 62 goals that year, a number she reduced to a paltry 38 her senior year.

As a player who enjoyed success in high school, McSweeney — not unlike many of Brown’s recruits — found the transition from winning to losing tough but necessary.

“I think that’s a transition that a lot of players make when they come in … they are used to being really successful, and I think that that’s good for our program — that if you get players that are used to success, you won’t be able to settle for a loss,” McSweeney said. “It’s a good thing that it’s hard to come in and lose — you don’t want players who are willing to settle for a loss.”

McSweeney’s second year was defined by firsts, as she was able to see Brown over .500 for the first time in her career — a 4-2 win over Colgate put the Bears at 2-1 three games into the season. She garnered her first career Ivy win in a 4-3 double overtime victory over Cornell. She also recorded her first career shutout — a six-save, 4-0 victory over Holy Cross — and smashed the season saves record with 185, 15 more than Sarah Lamont ’91 registered in 1990.
“There have definitely been some fun (games). I mean beating Cornell my sophomore year was great because it was my first Ivy win,” she said. “I didn’t get an Ivy win my first year, so it was awesome to get the first one.”

She followed a 6-11 sophomore year with an identical record her junior year, but it was not without novelties. A 2-1 overtime win against Harvard in which McSweeney had 10 saves was the Bears’ first win over the Crimson since 2010, and a 2-1 win over No. 14 Louisville — another ten-save effort — was Bruno’s first win over a nationally ranked opponent since 2005.

Then came the all-important senior year. Just 73 saves away from the career saves record, the battle-tested goalie could easily add to her already illustrious Brown career. Little did McSweeney know there was a lot more in store for her and the Bears in her last season.

After starting the season off 3-0 — the best start for the Bears in more than 15 years — Brown clinched its first winning record since 2006 against Holy Cross. In the team’s 13th game with a McSweeney shutout, she recorded four saves en route to her last shutout against the same team that let her record her first.

Bruno also beat Harvard for the second year in a row and topped Providence in McSweeney’s most impressive game as a Bear. She recorded a career-high 19 saves, facing 32 shots in a 2-0 victory that displayed her instinctual, warrior-like goalkeeping.

“The Providence game will always have a place in my memory because it was so unbelievable that not only could we beat them, but that we could shut them out,” she said. “I was really intimidated by them coming in, and I just wanted to have the best game that I could.”
She recorded only 111 saves in her senior campaign, though the number was more indicative of the caliber of this year’s team, as they kept the ball away from McSweeney more than in years past. She registered 2.17 goals against average, a whole goal better than her 3.16 average coming into 2014.

“It was really the perfect ending. Obviously I would have loved to win the Ivy League championship, but I think that at some point you have to be realistic, too,” she said. “It’s just black and white to look at the difference between how the team was when I came in as a first-year and the expectations and the standards that we have now.”
After finishing arguably the most impressive collegiate career for a Brown goalie, she described the process of turning a program around as “eye-opening.”

“I think that making changes in a way that a culture behaves and stuff like that, it’s really hard to shift,” she said. “The hardest thing is in order to win and be successful and be a really strong team, you really have to believe in the ability of the team, and that’s really hard when you have a history of losing.”
Humble as ever, the All-Ivy goalie attributes a lot of her success to the people around her throughout her career at Brown, especially her coaches.

“The whole coaching staff is amazing, and I think they’re one of the best coaching staffs in the country. I mean we have two Olympians on our coaching staff, and Jillian, the goalie coach, is the best coach I could have imagined. I don’t think that I could have done anything that I’ve done here without her,” she said.

But Reeve and Brown, who have worked with McSweeney for the last four years, cut right through the humility when they talk about one of the best players to ever put on a Brown uniform.

“Shannon has been a joy to coach,” Reeve said. “She’s truly a coach’s dream athlete. She’s coachable, goes above and beyond without prompting and always puts the team’s needs before her own. She is irreplaceable and will be greatly missed next year.”
“She goes out of her way to connect with every player regardless of class,” Brown said. “Shannon is a shining example of a Brown student-athlete, portraying herself with maturity both on and off the field, and has set a new standard for future leaders of this program.”

As a senior leaving the program with a winning record — and a team that has had a better record every single year since McSweeney joined — McSweeney said she believes the future of the program is very encouraging.

“We’ve been down such a great path in the last three years that I think that three years from now, they’ll be at the top of the league,” she predicted, adding boldly, “I think it’s even possible sooner than that. I don’t have a doubt in my mind.”
The engineering concentrator is now shifting her focus to life after Brown and field hockey, where she hopes to pursue a career in engineering that pertains to sports.

“I was trying to put off the job search until after the season. Then when I found out about the (NFHCA Division 1 Senior Game), I said, ‘Oh, I can wait another week’,” she said, laughing. “I think I want to do something with product development or design. I could see myself doing something field hockey related on the side, but I’m excited to get into the real world and do something with engineering, and it’s something that I’ve been dreaming of for a long time.”

On Saturday, Nov. 22, in the annual NFHCA game, McSweeney will get one final chance to defend her 7 x 12 foot goal.

It will be the last fight for one of Brown’s greatest warriors.