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<p>Miami field hockey has won six straight Mid-American Conference regular season titles.</p>

Walking on from a club team to a varsity squad that has secured six consecutive conference championships is an endeavor that requires both skill and tenacity. Especially when walking on to back up one of the best athletes in school history. 

Nicky Sjouken, a sophomore goalkeeper in field hockey, tried out for Miami University’s varsity team last semester after playing on the Miami club field hockey team. This year, she’s a backup goalkeeper behind fifth-year Isabelle Perese, the Miami career leader in shutouts and minutes played.

Prompted by her friend’s suggestion during last year’s spring break, Sjouken took the initiative to contact the coaching staff. 

Head coach Iñako Puzo extended an invitation for a seven-day trial period, with Sjouken participating in the team’s practice sessions. A mutual understanding of fit was quickly established, setting the stage for Sjouken to join the team and enter a new chapter in her field hockey journey. 

“When I recruit them, I always tell them, for me, it doesn't matter if you're on full scholarship or you don't get a penny, I’m going to ask you for exactly the same,” Puzo said. “The concept of walk-on gets removed once you are on the roster.”

Sjouken said the support she received from the team started from minute one. The team’s approach was welcoming and helpful from the very start, making her feel like a valued member despite being a newcomer. 

Sjouken, an international student from the Netherlands, emphasized the aid from international teammates. The team boasts a diverse roster, with nine international players, seven of whom hail from Europe. 

“It’s nice to have the support from Europe,” Sjouken said. “It’s very different to come here, but it's nice to have people that understand being an international student.”

Unlike some sports, where limitations are placed on the number of players allowed on the roster, Miami’s field hockey is given a high level of flexibility, with the coaching staff having the freedom to welcome as many players as it sees fit. This season, Puzo says the roster is larger than in the past, partially due to the extra year of eligibility the NCAA gave student athletes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“We have a lot of fifth year students who are loyal to the program and want to play,” Puzo said. “I'm someone that if you have eligibility left in your NCAA, I always invite you to stay.”

The impending departure of Perese marks a significant void in the team’s roster for the upcoming year. This succession underscores the weight of the goalkeeper position, especially given Perese’s record-breaking contributions, and highlights the challenge of maintaining the same level of excellence in the years to come. 

Sjouken explained how her experience with the club team allowed her to transition toward the American style of play. European field hockey is known for its technical and skillful style of play, often emphasizing ball control, passing and tactical finesse. In the U.S., gameplay tends to be more physical and fast-paced with a focus on athleticism, speed and a style of play that is more direct. 

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“Coming from not an American background, club definitely helped me learn the American way of playing field hockey,” Sjouken said. “It helped the transition to [varsity] be easier, although it wasn’t intentional.”

Despite suffering an injury early on in the season, Puzo is excited to have Sjouken back to full health to continue her growth in the game. 

“She has the character, she's so independent, she's very professional in terms of discipline,” Puzo said. “She has every single thing she needs.”