By Nathan Heintschel
A trip from Crookwell, New South Wales Australia to Moon Township, Pennsylvania and Richmond, Virginia covers about 10,400 miles. A few bumps in the road are inevitable when covering that kind of distance.
VCU Field Hockey senior Taleah Scott continues to absorb that road’s imperfections and is enjoying the ride.
The 22-year-old Australian comes from humble beginnings. Roughly two and a half hours outside of Sydney, Crookwell is home to fewer than 3,000 people. The town is not too dissimilar from many small downs in western Virginia. It seems like everyone knows each other, kids can roam free without worrying their parents, and there is no movie theater.
Despite how many times you have to click to zoom in on Google Maps to find Crookwell, the area is well-established on the sports map.
“We’re renowned for sport,” Scott said. “We have Olympians in our town, well-rounded, all-around, cricketers, hockey, soccer, football, rugby leagues.”
Crookwell and neighboring town Goulburn each produced a pair of athletes who competed in the 2012 Olympics in London.
Scott credits her family and Crookwell for her interest in sports. The daughter of Narelle and David Scott chose soccer as her first organized sport. However, her team lost all of its games, and she quickly lost interest. She picked up a field hockey stick around age four and followed the same path as her older sisters Maigan and Kirstie.
Scott played field hockey on club teams throughout high school and earned recognition. She played for the Australian Capital Territory state team in both the U15 and U18 leagues, teams that competed at the National level. Despite her success on the turf, Scott faced a critical decision has her high school career drew to a close.
“Sport is not a life at home,” she said. “Even for our national team, they do not get paid. So a lot of them have jobs outside of what they do. They put in so many hours of practice and training and working really hard, and then they still have to work on top of that.”
In Australia, many young adults will use a “gap year” between high school and college to decide their future. Australians are not allowed to enter universities if they are undecided on a course of study. Scott seized the opportunity to visit the United States and play field hockey during her gap year. Former Robert Morris Coach Olivia Netzler-Gray, a native of New South Wales, recruited Scott through mutual contacts.
Scott found herself in the right place at the right time and jumped at the opportunity to simultaneously pursue academics and athletics. Scott approached studying in America pragmatically. She figured she could always return to Australia if things didn’t work out. But she never needed the back-up plan.
“It got to the end of the year and we got a message to come in and sign the contracts for the next year,” Scott said. “And I’ve gone, ‘Oh no, a year has finished already.’ The year went so quickly that I didn’t necessarily want to give it up. I went home that summer break, and I didn’t hate the idea of coming back over. And once that [second] year finished, again, it went so quickly, I was like, ‘ok well after I passed two years, I have to stick it out for all four.’”
But somewhere along the way, things got complicated.
There had been whispers of budget cuts at Robert Morris, cuts that included the possibility of shuttering sports, but players shrugged off the rumors. For nearly three years, nothing happened. In 2013, following Scott’s junior season, in which the Colonials finished 11-8, the players received a cryptic text message. They were to meet with the athletic director later that day.
“I was sitting in one of my psychology classes, a class that I’m not meant to have my phone…but I looked at it for one of the first times that I checked my phone in that class, and I sunk,” Scott said. “I had two basketball girls sitting next to me and I asked, you didn’t get this message did you and they said no. I said, oh no, I know exactly what this is. I had to leave class because I couldn’t really focus.”
Robert Morris Director of Athletics Craig Coleman confirmed Scott’s fears. Field hockey was one of seven sports trimmed by the school, as RMU looked to reallocate nearly $1.2 million to its other programs. The meeting with Coleman was an emotional one. Student-athletes who could not attend found out via text their programs had been cut.
“It was really emotional at the time,” Scott said. “I felt really bad for our coach who had just found out that her job was over right at the beginning of that day. So she had no lead up to that and she was pregnant, so that was a big deal for me to take on because I felt really bad for her.”
Scott says the moments after learning of the school’s decision were difficult in part because of the time difference between the United States and Australia. When she eventually reached her parents via Skype, Scott struggled to fight back tears while sitting in the cafeteria.
“I think the words that came out of my mouth when I was talking to them were ‘I feel worse that these American girls now have no field hockey as a part of their life,’” Scott said. “I can go home and still play the same competition that I’ve been playing since seventh grade, but for these girls it was their last chance to play.”
Although she was thousands of miles from home, Scott used the experience as a lesson, to continue on with life even when difficult situations arise.
“I think one of my biggest things is that it opens other opportunities,” Scott said. “I would not be here [at VCU]. I would not have had the opportunity to go to grad school if I didn’t have this extra year that I could play.”
As is custom when programs are eliminated, Robert Morris honored the scholarships of student-athletes in the affected programs. Many student-athletes chose to transfer. Scott decided to finish her undergraduate degree at RMU to avoid losing credits. Instead, she spent the year as a regular undergraduate student.
But Scott hadn’t given up on field hockey, and even after taking the 2014 season off, she would still have a year of eligibility remaining. She took advantage of her network of field hockey contacts and reached out to former Robert Morris assistant and fellow Australian Lindsay Burrows, now a member of the VCU coaching staff. Scott chose VCU after learning about the Center for Sport Leadership, the school’s sports management graduate program.
Scott says she’s still getting back into game shape after taking last season. She spent this past summer playing for her club team in Australia. Now her biggest challenge is learning to balance her graduate work with athletics, which she says is much more difficult than when she balanced undergraduate studies with sports.
Despite some rust, she’s quickly become a starter for the Rams as they fight for an Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament bid, and she believes the Center for Sport Leadership graduate program will allow her to build on her psychology degree. She says the curriculum is also compatible with education, should she choose to pursue teaching in the future.
“I grew up wanting to do education,” Scott said. “My biggest draw is I want to impact people somehow. The options of either being a coach or getting into any athletics, I feel like you can do that, especially in America, and the career choices in America are so much more open than what they are in Australia. If I do finish this program successfully, then I will have more options in America to work, just depending on what country I choose to be in at the time.”