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Leader Harbin commands stingy Stanford defense

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“Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something deep inside them — a desire, a dream, a vision.”

For field hockey junior fullback Kelsey Harbin, it is precisely this mental tenacity — as described by the legendary Muhammad Ali above — that has allowed her to claim a spot as this season’s leading scorer, the 2012 NorPac Defensive Player of the year and a crucial leader for this year’s Cardinal field hockey team.

“Kelsey is a competitor. She has a very strong desire and passion for hockey,” said head coach Tara Danielson. “In her quest to pursue excellence, she really is able to limit distractions and really be targeted on the goals at hand … She’s always trying to be the best that she can be.”

Junior fullback Kelsey Harbin (13) (ALISA ROYER/The Stanford Daily)
Junior fullback Kelsey Harbin (13) is one of the stars of Stanford’s dominant defense and also a difference-maker on penalty corners. (ALISA ROYER/The Stanford Daily)

“I’m a true believer that if you work hard, and you put in the time and the sweat, and the blood and the tears, that it will pay off in the end,” said Harbin. “And so that’s my mentality throughout games and practices: Work as hard as you can and do your part.”

Harbin, a native of San Diego, started playing field hockey in sixth grade alongside basketball, which served as her primary sport in her childhood. In the tenth grade, however, her priorities in athletics changed when she made the U-17 national field hockey team, traveling to Uruguay the following summer to play in her first international tournament. It was then that Harbin realized her true passion for the sport of field hockey.

“I just totally fell in love with the sport and have been in love with it ever since,” said Harbin.

Although Harbin played center-mid throughout high school, defense is where she has found her true calling as a player. She described that being the furthest back in the field at the defender position was appealing to her because it allowed to introduce a more cerebral element to her play, relying on her experience and decision making in the more calculative position.

Harbin and her defense have proven themselves a force to be reckoned with this season, allowing only 29 shots from opponents (compared to Stanford’s 118) and 13 corners (as compared to Stanford’s 63). One of the reasons Harbin gave for their success is the experience of the backfield, which includes senior Anna Simmons, junior Hannah Thiemann, sophomore Jess Chisholm and junior goalkeeper Dulcie Davies.

“We’ve had a couple years to really work together and gel, so we do well communicating on the field and just knowing where each other are going to be,” said Harbin. “We’ve built that over the years, so our defense is really solid.”

Although Harbin primarily serves as the steadfast anchor of Stanford’s backfield, the element of her game that has taken center stage for the Cardinal team is her ability to play offense as well. She leads the Cardinal in goals on the season as the striker on the Cardinal’s offensive corners, where she has been able to knock in all four of her goals.

“Scoring goals is a fullback’s dream because I never really get up there at all,” said Harbin. “Being able to actually get shots in the game is super exciting for me, and I’ve been lucky enough that my teammates have set me up to put a few in.”

Although Harbin is the one scoring the goals while keeping opponents off the board as a defender, a significant element of her game — one that manifests off the field as well as on the field — is her dedication to her teammates and her readiness to credit them before herself.

“Kelsey is really a good team player. She’s not interested in having the glory for herself but passing it on and sharing it with her teammates,” said Danielson. “I think that’s what makes her a special player. She’s always giving to the team and really wants to see the team excel.”

Harbin’s team-first mentality is especially evident in her leadership on the field, where she strives to get all of her teammates involved in plays, regardless of whether she has the ball or not. When she has the ball, she is quick to distribute it to her teammates. When she doesn’t, she’s acting as an organizer on the field, making sure that all of her teammates are in their proper positions and helping control the off-the-ball movement.

That ability to act as an on-field leader, coupled with her standout talents as both a defender and attacker, is what has made Kelsey Harbin such a valuable asset for the Cardinal field hockey team this season.

During her time at Stanford, Harbin has had just one overarching goal in mind for herself and her team.

“I know it sounds super simple, but just becoming national champions. When I came in my freshman year, Stanford was top 20 but not really ever competing with the top teams,” said Harbin. “In the next couple years, I’m looking forward to putting Stanford on the map as one of the names that people fear to play.”

According to the junior, this goal is more attainable this season than ever before.

“In our offseasons, we have been working harder than any team in the country. I can guarantee it,” said Harbin. “What’s special about our team this year is that everyone is buying into the game plan. This year every single person that’s on the team wants it and wants to be a champion.”

The team’s hunger for a championship has certainly manifested in the early returns from this season. The Cardinal (6-1-0) moved to No. 6 in the national poll Tuesday morning, matching the school record for its highest-ever national ranking. The team is currently riding a six-game winning streak, of which the last four have been shutouts for the Harbin-led defense. And if the team continues its winning ways, there’s nothing stopping it from being one of the most special women’s field hockey teams ever to play for Stanford.

True to form, Harbin is quick to attribute Stanford’s success in this promising season to her fellow Cardinal and the team factor that unifies them.

“The reason that we have been so successful at the beginning of this season — and I have, individually — is because our team is so close and actually a team,” said Harbin. “Every single person works for the team. And I think that’s something really special about the group this year and what makes it possible for us to win the national championship.”

Contact Lucy Svoboda at lsvoboda ‘at’ stanford.edu.