Field Hockey: Armstrong looks to top off best career in program history

After coming over from Australia four years ago, Chelsea Armstrong has become one of the best players in Northwestern history. Already the all-time leader for the program in goals scored, Armstrong hopes to lead the Wildcats to their first NCAA Championship.

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After coming over from Australia four years ago, Chelsea Armstrong has become one of the best players in Northwestern history. Already the all-time leader for the program in goals scored, Armstrong hopes to lead the Wildcats to their first NCAA Championship.

Alex Putterman, Reporter

Once upon a time, in a far-away land, one heroic athlete set off on a journey to Northwestern. Now, four years later, she’s looking for a happily ever after.

Field hockey star and captain Chelsea Armstrong, born and raised in rural Australia, almost never made it to Evanston. The Aussie first considered coming stateside during her first year at the University of Western Australia. Her club coach received a call from Carla Tagliente, then an assistant coach at the University of Michigan, where Tracey Fuchs was associate head coach, asking if she knew of any players interested in playing college field hockey in the U.S.

“No, not interested,” Armstrong says she initially replied. “Pretty happy here.”

But a few weeks later, the forward said she reassessed the offer. After further research and contemplation, Armstrong grew comfortable with the idea of crossing the Pacific and began communicating with Tagliente about the possibility of joining the Wolverines. When Fuchs and Tagliente accepted jobs at NU before Armstrong’s freshman season, the Aussie followed them to Evanston. And thus began the best career in Northwestern field hockey history.

Armstrong’s first season with the Wildcats was impressive personally for the freshman, who was named to the All-Big Ten first team after leading the conference with 22 goals, but less successful for the team. That year, NU finished 6th in the Big Ten with a 1-6 conference record, despite the standout performance from its young star.

The next two seasons saw improvement by some measures — the Cats beat five ranked teams, three of them in the top 10, in 2010 and 2011 — but NU still won only four Big Ten games during that time. According to Armstrong, the team’s struggles during her first three seasons were as much mental as physical.

“When I came in we were missing that winning mentality,” she said. “We’d go into games as the underdog every time and not really expecting to win, which kind of meant that once we got down in a game, there was no drive to keep trying or drive to come out on top. We’d just end up getting down and out.”

Nonetheless, Armstrong’s personal successes kept coming. She again earned All-Big Ten honors for her sophomore and junior seasons and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year both years, twice again leading the conference in goals. On Sept. 27, 2011, the junior became NU’s all-time leader in goals scored after tallying three against St. Louis.

All the while, Fuchs watched as Armstrong improved herself on and off the field.

“She’s one of the few people of anyone I’ve coached that has grown,” Fuchs said. “She’s grown in just about every way. Obviously, she’s one of the best players in the nation. She also came in, struggled a little bit with school, and now she’s well over a 3.0 (GPA). Her first two months here she hardly spoke. She just practiced, played hard, and now she’s our vocal leader on the field and our captain.”

Fuchs isn’t alone in admiring all Armstrong offers the team. The senior’s teammates also appreciate her leadership.

“Coming in to this program I wasn’t sure what to expect,” freshman Kelley Stump said. “But I found in Chelsea a really good role model. I have a ton of respect for her on and off the field, and if there’s one person I look up to, it’s her.”

This year, Armstrong’s improvement as a player has meant her best statistical season yet, and her growth as a leader has meant a much-improved NU squad. A 6-0 victory over Missouri St. on Oct. 21 epitomized the progress of both the Cats and their captain. That day, the team won its eighth consecutive game, NU’s first streak of that length since 1990. Meanwhile, Armstrong made her senior day special, scoring 4 goals to reach 100 for her career. She is the third Big Ten player, and the first from NU, to reach that milestone. On the surface the win was an ordinary rout of an overmatched non-conference opponent. In reality, it represented a revamped program and the remarkable talent of its best player.

Never described as anything but humble, Armstrong can deflect credit as fast as she can deflect a little white ball into a field hockey net.

“(100 goals) is something I can’t take all the credit for,” she said. “So many times it’s just me popping the ball in the net when someone’s done a huge run down the sideline. A lot of the work goes un-credited.”

As for her off-field growth, Armstrong points to the woman in change.

“Tracey (Fuchs) has played such a huge role in my life these past four years,” she said. “I really think I’ve developed as a person a lot because of Tracey’s leadership and pushing me to be a better leader. She’s pushed me over the four years to be a better player, to be a better leader, to be a better person. I really think that she’s played such a huge role in shaping who I am. She might not even realize it.”

Having arrived at NU together and elevated the program from Big Ten bottom-dwellers to National Championship contenders, Fuchs and Armstrong share a mutual admiration for each other. The coach, who in addition to her own legendary on-field collegiate and international careers has coached for recent iterations of USA national teams, finds Armstrong’s attitude and performance almost incomparable.

“The whole package, she is right up there in the top two with any player I’ve ever coached.” Fuchs said. “We’re sure going to miss her. You can’t replace her.”

But Armstrong isn’t done quite yet. The Big Ten Tournament begins Thursday against Indiana (9-8, 0-6 Big Ten) for the No. 8 Cats (16-3, 4-2), followed by the NCAA Tournament, which NU has never won. How does the senior imagine ending her unparalleled Cats career? With another unprecedented achievement.

“I would love to end it holding an NCAA championship,” she said. “Going out on a win is something that not many people get to do. Honestly, I could end the season today and leave happy, but I think we have a chance right now to really contend for that national championship, and I think that would be the perfect way to end my career.”

One could call that a fairy-tale ending.