Limerick woman Róisín Upton says she is thankful to the University of Connecticut for taking a chance on her after helping to repay their faith by playing a key role in their first NCAA title victory in 28 years.
UConn Huskies defeated Duke 2-0 in the final of the American collegiate system’s showpiece competition in Virigina on Sunday, making Upton just the second Irish player after Megan Frazer (Maryland) to land the prestigious crown.
But having struggled with a foot injury during her final season as a schoolgirl – she missed the U18 interpros, plus her first seven games with UConn as a result – Upton admitted she wasn’t sure if her American dream would have lift off.
“When I left for Connecticut (in 2012) I wasn’t too sure if I would ever regain full fitness after having an operation on my foot,” said the 19-year-old former Irish underage international. “Everyone here was so patient with me, looked after me and encouraged me so I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
“All I wanted to do was get back playing competitively and I was thrilled to find the standard here is really strong. I owe the system here a lot and can’t speak highly enough of how they treat their athletes.
“We play 25 games in less than three months, which is a gruelling schedule when you take into account we are full-time students as well. Our academic advisor travelled with us to the Final Eight last weekend so I could sit an exam at the same time as my class.
[pullquote]”I owe the system here a lot and can’t speak highly enough of how they treat their athletes”[/pullquote]
“It’s tough but it’s worth it. I’m playing with American, English and German internationals, I’m playing against Olympians and internationals from all over the world, with even more internationals making the move every year.”
The former Catholic Institute starlet playing a starring role in her side’s final four success, assisting her side’s goal in the 1-1 semi-final draw with Sinead Loughran’s North Carolina Tar Heels. She had a stellar game at centre back in the decider against Duke and her short corner strike led to the opening goal. UConn won 21 of their 25 games this season.
Upton, one of around 20 Irish girls plying their trade in the USA collegiate system, becomes the second Irish hockey player to win an NCAA title, following in the footsteps of current international Megan Frazer, who won a handful of titles with the University of Maryland in the late 2000s. Upton was also named as one of the tournament’s best players.
“To follow in the footsteps of Megan Frazer who has won two (titles) is brilliant. Mark Egner is now coaching in Longwood and they are so lucky to have a coach of his standards. Rebecca Barry made it into the ESPN top 16 plays last year – what an achievement!” she said.
[pullquote align=”right”]“We play 25 games in less than three months, which is a gruelling schedule when you take into account we are full-time students as well. Our academic advisor travelled with us to the Final Eight last weekend so I could sit an exam at the same time as my class.”[/pullquote]
“The Irish really are making their mark here. It was initially difficult being so far away from home and not having my family and friends on the sideline for every game, especially my parents who are my number one supporters. But the Americans and their parents treat you as one of their own, it’s one big family.”
“Having Rebecca and Amy (Cooke) there for the semis and final and having the incredible support of family, friends and the hockey community back home really was so special also.”
She added that a 5-0 reverse to Old Dominion during the regular season helped shape the Huskies’ campaign in the positive manner.
“Winning it is so surreal. It hasn’t sunk in yet. The entire weekend was such an amazing experience. With all the social media and well wishers I’ve received it’s slowly beginning to dawn on me.
“Nobody gave us a shot this time five weeks ago when Old Dominion beat us, but I suppose it is a great example of how sometimes a loss can be more beneficial than a win. We have a huge background staff here at UConn and theres a huge emphasis placed on team – it’s not about individuals and that’s the way I like it.”
Expanding on the setup at Storrs, where UConn are based, Upton explained that the intensity of American collegiate sport has provided her with a “unique experience”.
“I’ve never experienced this type of hockey before. I’ve played in many exciting knock out tournaments that last a week or two. I’ve done my fair share of travelling with hockey at underage level travelling to Australia, the Youth Olympics in Singapore and all around Europe. I’ve played with some great players back home with Crescent, Catholic Institute, Munster and Ireland. But (the difference is) they put such a huge emphasis on sport over here.
“This is only college hockey but it’s treated so professionally. There is nothing left to chance – we train five days a week, we have two physios specifically for our team, we play at least two games per week, we take contrast tubs and ice baths every week, every college has a waterbase pitch, and we have video sessions every week.
[pullquote]”UConn last won the national championship 28 years ago to the exact day – I’ve got two more years left and I’m hoping we won’t have to wait that long again.”[/pullquote]
“Everywhere I went I was lucky to have great coaches in every sport I’ve played, including Mungret GAA, and I really landed on my feet over here too. I’m playing for a coach, Nancy Stevens, who has won the national championship as a player, assistant coach and now a head coach. She also holds the record for most wins over here. She’s a great person.
“Paul (Caddy), our assistant coach, is fantastic. He is from England, so it’s good to have someone that understands the initial culture shock. And Cheri (Herr), our goalkeeping coach, always knows how to put a smile on everyone’s faces. There’s a great balance.
“UConn last won the national championship 28 years ago to the exact day – I’ve got two more years left and I’m hoping we won’t have to wait that long again.”