By: Emily McNamara

I was only eight years old but I remember the night I first saw a field hockey game so vividly.

To be honest, I really didn’t know anything about the sport and I hardly paid attention to what was going on. It was what my dad said as we were walking away from the field that night that caught my attention.

He looked at my older sister and said, “You did a great job. I had no idea what was going on, but I think you did great.”

To an eight-year-old girl who had been coached in other sports by her father, a loving but tough and demanding man, hearing him say that to my sister was music to my ears. I signed up to play the next year.

It wasn’t long before I would go out by myself and just hit balls up against the garage wall. I’d be out there day after day trying to hit the ball harder than the last time. Each ball I hit would leave a hole and I was determined to make a bigger hole with each swing. That garage is where it all started.

A few years and many games later, I was playing for my high school when my recruiting process began. At the time, I didn’t know what was up or down because it was my family’s first real time going through the process. My older sister, Jessica, played softball in college but her recruiting process was different because she went to her dream school. As for me, I didn’t know where to begin searching for a place to attend college and play field hockey.

Did the rankings matter? How far did I want to go from home? Was I ready to start a new chapter away from my family? Did I want to move to a state I’ve never been to? The whole thought of it was unsettling at first. I remember sending highlight tapes, emails and making phone calls to just about any school that had the sport. When Sept. 1 of my junior year came around, it marked the first day college coaches can reach out to you via email.

I remember staying up that night before like it was Christmas. I wanted to see if anyone would send anything to me showing interest. As the clock struck midnight, I received an email, from one school.

When I first stepped onto the VCU campus in Richmond it was rainy. The city in the rain might have been a drag to some but I can remember how much I absolutely loved this place. It just felt right. After a few more visits, I committed as a student-athlete at VCU on March 10, 2014.

I signed with VCU because I wanted to go to a school where I could work hard and help make a difference and to change the view someone had on our program. I fully believe I would not have been given the same opportunity anywhere else that I was given here.

My first season wrapped up in early November of 2015. With it being my first semester in college, I was looking forward to Thanksgiving break because you get to go home and catch up with all of your high school friends. The day I was set to go home for break, my phone rang around 7:15 a.m. and I answered.

On the other end I heard, “Conor passed away last night.”

That sentence changed the entire dynamic of how I viewed life.

I remember taking a second before finally saying that I didn’t believe it. My very best friend from home was gone. It was an absolutely unbearable feeling. His heart had only skipped one beat, he collapsed and was gone in a blink of an eye. I couldn’t help but think about how I was never going to see him again. With the season going on, it had been four months since I had last seen him. I just wish I would have known that was going to be the last time I would see Conor.

I have played in almost 70 games since I walked onto this campus. In every single game since that phone call, I walk onto that field with my best friend Conor’s number, 26, written on my shoes. It’s how I best keep his memory alive and with me.

Each of these years at VCU has brought its own challenges and struggles. No matter what it has been, I wouldn’t trade any of my time at VCU for the world. Looking back, there were times that I thought to myself that maybe if I went somewhere else, the hardship wouldn’t have happened the way it has. I think about what I would say if I could talk to my younger self.

If I could, I would tell her that you are going to face some of the most difficult life changes but you’ll come out on the other side stronger. There will be struggles and defeats, but there will be victories too. There will be people that want you to leave and want you to quit and there are moments where you think you agree with them.

I’d tell myself that when you’re in those moments, you better stick through whatever life throws at you because when you do, these next four years of life and field hockey at VCU will also be the best. I have accomplished my individual goals I set back when I was 17 and committed to play at VCU. They were goals I wanted but never thought were possible. All of the accolades and records I have earned and broken along the way, I owe a thank you to all my teammates and coaches.

The individual awards and accolades will mean less and less as the years pass but the state of this program once I walk off this campus means more to me than anything in this world. It’s been incredible that my hard work has helped play a part in our success. Last season, we went 14-6, 6-2 in conference play. We also beat the University of Richmond for the first time since 2010 and had the second-most wins in program history. It's been incredible to see our team's progress over these last four years.

I only have a couple more weeks as a VCU field hockey player to accomplish my last goal, winning a championship. Each time I go out on the field I think about that and tell myself that this is the last time I’ll ever play with this team, so why hold back? I want to leave it all out there and have no regrets when my final game comes. It's surreal to think about my field hockey career coming to an end. My time at VCU has allowed me to grow as a player and as a person, and that’s all I could ask for.

I ultimately have to thank that little, independent, eight-year-old self of mine who wanted to try a new sport and experience something that was my own. It was just a stick, a ball and that garage wall that brought me through the ups and downs and to where I am today.