For Miami University’s field hockey team, championships and deep playoff runs are the standard.
Last year, the team won its fifth straight Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament title. The RedHawks nearly advanced to the Elite 8 in the NCAA tournament before getting knocked out by Northwestern in the round of 16.
Claudia Negrete Garcia, a senior midfielder and striker who is majoring in Sports Management and Leadership, remembers the game well.
The game went to a penalty shoot out, and Negrete Garcia appeared to score the goal which would extend the shoot out. It was called back upon review, ultimately giving Northwestern the win. To field hockey beginners, the call may have been controversial, but Negrete Garcia says the call was right.
“Once I shot, I knew,” Negrete Garcia said. “… I hit it with the back of the stick … and I was just hoping they didn’t see it.”.
In field hockey, a stick has two sides: a flat side and a domed side. The flat side is considered the front, and players are only allowed to hit the ball with the front of their stick. Players are not allowed to hit the ball with the domed side, which is what happened with Negrete Garcia’s shot.
While it was a heartbreaking loss, the team has left it in the past. This year, the RedHawks are focused on bringing another MAC championship back to Oxford.
“Sports in general at this level are about details … but we are very proud of the 2022 campaign and we are going to keep building on that,” Puzo said.
Head Coach Iñako Puzo has been with the team for more than a decade and led them to six regular season MAC titles, five MAC tournament titles and multiple wins in the NCAA tournament. Under Puzo’s leadership, the program has become notorious for scheduling tough opponents, and this year is no different. The home schedule is highlighted by Indiana, Brown, Michigan State, Louisville and Virginia, and the RedHawks will travel to Maryland, Wake Forest and California.
On his way to Miami, Puzo established and coached 12U and 14U teams in Venezuela, before taking an assistant coaching position at Ohio State, and later an associate head coaching position at The University of Virginia.
“I started creating leagues of younger kids for us to have people to play in the future,” Puzo said. “Then I realized that I was good at it, I was able to transmit not just X’s and O’s, but my passion for the sport … it was rewarding for me [seeing] people accept my leadership.”
The RedHawks are poised to have another successful season, as the team returns nine seniors including a handful of All-MAC players and one of the top goalies by save percentage in the nation. Isabelle Perese, a senior majoring in Special Education, allowed just 21 goals while defending a total of 215 shots over the course of the season.
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Puzo says his team plays to win.
“[Fans] can expect a very talented team,” Puzo said. “But the past is the past, this group is different … it’s our job to put all of this talent together and really make a great team.”
While the team has been successful, Puzo said it’s important not to let that success weigh the RedHawks down.
“Maybe the most important part to keep this coming is to stay humble,” Puzo said. “We are proud of our trophies, but last year’s trophies are in the past. People in athletics have very short memories. You’re a champion today and if you lose tomorrow, you are terrible.”
A big part of the program’s success is the ability to recruit top players. Puzo said international recruiting is easier than domestic recruiting. Because many people in the United States grow up watching schools with large brands on television, it is harder for the smaller brand RedHawks to compete in domestic recruiting. According to Puzo, many international students are not aware of which programs are branded better than others in the States.
“When you talk with international students, you start on the same ground,” Puzo said. “They don’t know who the Power 5s are. They don’t even understand what this terminology is.”
Claudia Negrete Garcia, who is originally from Spain, is one of the many successful international recruits to come through Miami. She didn’t know it was possible to play field hockey on a scholarship. She wasn’t being recruited by any other schools. Now, she’s one of the best players in the MAC.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do in college,” Negrete Garcia said. “My plan was to either come here or stay in Spain because I had not even applied for college. I decided to just give it a try. I had no idea how it would work in America … and I love it.”
With all of the success Puzo has seen at Miami, the next step in his career progression would appear to be a Power 5 head coaching job, but he isn’t interested in leaving Oxford.
“Something we tell our players … is embrace the moment, focus on this game, focus on this practice,” Puzo said. “It would be unfair if the coach is giving that direction but at the same time in my head I’m thinking after this season I will see if I can go to Power 5 schools. My purpose is Miami. My purpose is here … I’ll be staying here.”
Miami Field Hockey’s home opener is Sept. 2 against St. Francis at noon.