For Marissa Baker, it was the field hockey season that almost wasn’t.
The former Darien High School standout was getting ready for her junior season for the Middlebury College Panthers when a wakeboarding accident in early August left her with a serious high ankle sprain.
A determined Baker, however, was in action several weeks later for Middlebury, playing in the Bowdoin game on Sept. 22. And despite her rough start, she completed her most successful season to date: Not only did the Panthers win the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) and the NCAA Division III national championships, both for the second consecutive year, but Baker racked up first team All-NESCAC, All-NCAA Tournament team, and National Field Hockey Coaches Association First-Team-All-New England West accolades.
“I was really lucky it happened in early August because our season doesn’t really start until the end of August, so I had four weeks there to recover,” Baker said. “It was my junior year, it’s a huge season, so it wasn’t my best start ever, but it ended up working out.”
“Working out” may be an understatement. As a member of the defending national champion Panthers, Baker scored a career high nine goals and six assists, for a total of 24 points, which included six goals in the final seven NESCAC conference games — including a hat trick over Wesleyan — and the game winning goal in the NESCAC tournament 1-0 semifinal win against Trinity. In the NCAA regional finals against The College of New Jersey, Baker had a goal and two assists, and in the semifinal matchup against Rowan she had two assists, including one on the game-winning goal.
“I moved up to high forward late in season so that gave me more opportunities to score goals,” Baker said. “I was striking on corners so that gave me more opportunities as well. I think as you get older, you’re getting jobs that allow you to do things like score more goals and get more assists.”
Baker began her field hockey career as a freshman at DHS; before trying out for the Wave, the former soccer player had never picked up a field hockey stick. Initially making the junior varsity squad, Baker was called up for tournament play at the end of her freshman year and never looked back. She made the varsity team her sophomore year, starting all three years under coach Mo Minicus.
“Mo really allowed me to come to Middlebury; she trained me so well for field hockey,” Baker said. “When I first started playing, I had never really played before but Mo took me under her wing and really developed me. Playing for Darien definitely prepared me well for Midd because it’s such an intense program and has a history of winning, and Middlebury is really the same: Both programs have a motto like ‘This is how we play, and this is what we expect out of each other, so we are going to deliver.’”
At Middlebury, Baker is part of a team that has now won three national championships in four years; with this year’s win over Tufts — a team the Panthers also defeated for the NESCAC title — the Panthers are the first team to win back-to-back championships since Bowdoin in 2007, and finished this season with a school record of 21-1. The team has also won five out of the last seven NESCAC championships, a feat that Baker attributes to Panthers head coach Katharine DeLorenzo.
“She’s very supportive coach; she expects a lot out of every single one of her players,” Baker said. “I think her most important aspect is that she develops you not only as a field hockey player, but also as a person. She always has little sayings: Some of my favorite ones are ‘Hope is not a strategy’ and ‘The biggest compliment you can give your teammate is to expect results.’ She’s full of these little words of wisdom, and just being around her is such a privilege.”
Despite the demands of playing for a national championship team, Baker said playing at a NESCAC school allows her enough time to pursue her interests off the field, including a campus job giving astronomy tours at the school’s observatory, and community service at a local elementary school. A computer science major, she is going abroad next semester to Copenhagen, where she will study artificial intelligence and game programming, after which she will work for a software company in Boston this summer.
And looking forward to her final season as a Panther, Baker plans to heed the lighthearted advice Coach DeLorenzo gave her when she called to tell her about the ankle injury that almost ended her junior season before it even began.
“I called her at a pre-season camp when I realized how bad it was — when I got my MRI back,” Baker said. “And she was like, ‘You know, maybe next year when you’re a senior you won’t go wakeboarding a month before your season starts.’”