By Ben Fleming
The world of university sport is always a fast-changing, dynamic environment at the best of times and that is something that Durham Hockey’s first-team coach, Jamie Cachia, has learned to accept. “I don’t think I’ve had one year the same as another one”, he tells Palatinate at the start of their new season.
However, this year presents more challenges than most. With ever-changing Covid-19 guidelines and all of their Squad A first-year students serving periods of isolation at various points during the first few weeks, the team have had to adapt fast. Cachia admits “it’s been very difficult” but is keen to stress the benefits that have arisen.
“We’ve had four or five guys making debuts that wouldn’t have necessarily played and that’s great to see them perform and get the opportunity to play.”
Durham’s campaign this year, in the Premier Division, comes after a successful campaign in all formats last year, and one which current first team captain, Ben Park, is “extremely proud of.” The Durham side were crowned National BUCS League Champions and had reached the BUCS final too before its cancellation in late March. Alongside those two feats, promotion in their weekend league and only one loss in total all season, showed, in Park’s eyes, that they were “the dominant force” in university and second-tier national hockey.
This year with ten or 11 departures from the team and no university hockey for the foreseeable future, the team’s focus has been solely on forging a new side ready to compete in the Premier Division. Their dominant season last year, however, counts for nothing in this higher division and that was illustrated in their first game, an 8-0 defeat against Old Georgians. Ben Park admits the team knew this season was going to be “a sharp learning curve” but, even so, “the magnitude of the first defeat was particularly difficult” to take.
What is noticeable immediately for both coach and captain Park, in particular, is the huge jump in quality of opposition that the team will have to face this season.
“So far we’ve played teams with multiple GB internationals who have years of experience and read the game so quickly. Some of the mistakes that we could get away with last season are now being punished,” Park notes.
Cachia, ever the optimist, sees the positives of this opportunity to face the best in their sport. “You don’t want to keep doing the same thing” and, if anything, he sees it as “a really good opportunity for our boys to show what they can do and show themselves that they are actually very good hockey players.”
Despite still being winless four games into the season, there are “good indicators that our work in training and video analysis is really starting to pay off,” according to Park. Their slender 3-1 loss against Beeston and their high-scoring 6-4 defeat to Wimbledon is indicative of a team starting to find their footing amongst the best in the country.
What is clear from speaking to Park and Cachia, more than anything else, is that, regardless of their results, there is no chance they will alter the way they aim to play. “I don’t really know any other way, to be honest: I’m going to attack, I’m going to press really high. We are going to try to be as aggressive as possible,” Cachia states. Whilst there may be some need to add a bit more defensive focus in training, which Cachia admits to, “I wouldn’t want to go there and change my entire philosophy as that wouldn’t be being true to myself.”
Ultimately, this is not a stable team with a consistent squad. University teams operate in cycles, as Cachia, a university hockey coach for eight years now, knows full well. And so, it is this finite window that he has with his players which drives his philosophy and ambitions to “make well-rounded players.”
“That is my ultimate goal as a university coach,” Cachia argues and the five current and former DUHC players who featured for GB this previous weekend against The Netherlands, are a testament to the successes of that very attitude and developmental philosophy.
This will be an interesting and topsy-turvy season to say the very least. As Park reminisces about some of his “favourite memories on Wednesdays, spent down at Maiden Castle, playing in front of vocal crowds”, which won’t return in the immediate future, he has put his full attention on the Premier League and is focused on “enjoying the experience.”
“Our overarching goal is to maintain our place in the division and we’re confident we can achieve this.” Yet, whilst there is a mountain to climb, the season is but young, and for a team that has faced so many setbacks early on, it feels like there is plenty of reason for promise and optimism for this young team.