By LUCAS BALL
Phoebe Steele has enjoyed her time at Holcombe so far having moved from New Zealand for the second half of the 2022/23 season.
As a result, Steele missed Phase One but played in Phase Two and both matches of Phase Three so far, with the team facing their final Vitality Premier Division fixture this weekend away to Buckingham (Saturday, 2pm).
A win will see Nick Bandurak’s side ensure Premier Division hockey for another season no matter the result between Reading and Loughborough Students, although they currently sit in the relegation zone. A draw could see the team survive but only if Loughborough beat Reading by at least five goals.
Holcombe beat Loughborough 2-1 last weekend with goals from Sofia Viarengo and Hattie Jones, their first home win since 8th October. Their away form, meanwhile, has remained impressive, with no defeats since 5th November to Surbiton, an unbeaten run that has now reached six matches on the road.
“It was so good. I think more than anything, I can’t speak for the first half of the season because I wasn’t here but I kept in touch with the coaches, it was almost like a relief, we know what we’re capable of.
“We know how good we can be and then to do it at home, I’ve been here eight weeks and I can tell that this club, this home ground is almost sacred and we’d had a really bad finish in our last home game so we really wanted to rectify that. The Holcombe supporters are amazing and on the weekend when we won, they were unreal, so supportive.
“They’re a really good team, first time they played it was a loss at home and then the second time we won 2-0 away but they had a lot of the ball. On the weekend, Loughborough were strong still but we played to our potential for a lot of the game which was really satisfying.
“It was so cool. When we made interceptions, when we made tackles, when we got our goals, the noise went off. That was really cool and it’s definitely an atmosphere here.
“Celebrations after were really good and then having the men’s 3s and men’s 1s made quite an afternoon of it!”
“There’s no doubt about it, when you’re winning games, things are just that bit easier – you feel confident in yourself. When you get a couple of frustrating results like we’ve had where you know you could have gone one step further or we were disappointed in the result, it’s quite easy to go within yourselves and I don’t think we did that.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’ve taken a good, hard look at all of us as individuals but I think collectively, we’ve all turned up to train, all picked each other back up and all played with 100% intensity.
“You’ve got your leaders in Haz and Squirt who really set that benchmark and then the younger ones coming through just give 100% all the time, giving us that key balance which really helps.
“They do get it [Bandurak and Phillips being current players as well as coaches]. They understand it, we’re all extremely competitive people but we’re also here to be better hockey players and better people, it’s not just about what you do on the turf although that’s how you get the results.
“They’re really big on making us fit as a team and individuals and we’ve all been able to pick up so many little things at training, talking to them, picking their brains and coaches and other players’.
“They play quite different over here, they play different structures, I’ve had to learn different things. Even the way people communicate is different and they’ve been really good. That’s why we play hockey, right? Yes, we want to become better players but it makes us better people – that’s a key thing.
“I think it almost sums up our season. It’s just so close, we’re in that bottom two at the moment but it’s in our hands, which is something we’ve been pushing towards – we haven’t capitalised.
“Now that they are, it’s a nice position to be in knowing that if we play well and we execute, it’s all in our control. We’re such a good team, such a talented team, we know we can do it.
“The girls have done it twice already against Buckingham so we can’t be complacent, we owe it to Buckingham, they’ve picked up some wins in the last six weeks but we also know that we can put that performance out there to keep us in the league. We need to finish on a high, it’s what we deserve I think.”
“I didn’t know those stats [about the away form] but I can’t emphasise enough how good this team is and how cool this team is. It hasn’t gone our way this season but if we can get over the line this weekend, it’ll give us such confidence.
“The previous results give us confidence but in the end, they don’t matter – Buckingham would love to knock us off our perch and take us down with them because that’s hockey, that’s being in competitive sport. We can use the confidence but not get complacent with it.”
Steele knew teammate Jones and assistant coach Hayden Phillips before moving over, commenting on her settling in and the attraction of joining Holcombe.
“It’s been so good. The girls have been awesome. Obviously I knew Hayden and Hattie but I didn’t really know anyone else. When I arrived, our first training was cancelled because the turf was frozen after I’d come from a New Zealand summer and then rocked up on Saturday, and that was meeting everyone for the first time. Really good, everyone’s super nice.”
“One of the main attractions was to do something different, you can so easily get comfortable in your own environment. I love my home and all that but to challenge myself to meet new people, to experience living overseas, not everyone gets that opportunity so it’s something I couldn’t really say no to.
“It was really good [knowing Jones and Phillips prior to move]. I played juniors with Hattie, a lot of club hockey with Hattie, my junior World Cup with her. We were friends prior to me coming and it’s definitely helped knowing her and having Hayden there as well.”
The New Zealand international also noticed a number of differences between English hockey and hockey in New Zealand, including the league structure as well as playing style.
Holcombe beat both Surbiton and East Grinstead in friendlies before the start of Phase Two but were unable to test themselves against those sides in the second half of the season.
“In a hockey sense, the pressing is very different and that’s a really specific thing. In the first couple of games, I felt sorry for the girls when I was playing, I was trying to do what they wanted and it wasn’t quite there. It worked enough and we got through but I definitely needed to do my homework on what to do.
“Everyone was supportive, I was able to call the coaches, call the older players, talk to people at training. Another difference is off-the-field, it’s quite a day event.
“You’re often travelling quite long hours with it being a national league whereas back home we just play regional-based competitions and then you’re meeting quite a while before the game, play the game, have dinner together, maybe watch a game afterwards and then head home so there’s a lot of extra time there to get to know your teammates which has been super valuable for me coming in, not really knowing anyone, I’ve really enjoyed that.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I’m a huge fan of playing everyone twice because I think teams step up against other teams and some teams drop to levels against others.
“With how even our table has been even just since I’ve been here, it’s been unreal. Having that ability to play all the teams twice would be really cool but, then again, what I’ve experienced has been great too, it’s been good hockey and we’ve had some really challenging matches, some have gone our way, some haven’t gone our way.
“You just want to be playing good hockey week-in, week-out and I think we’ve had that.
“Warm-up games are warm-up games, I wasn’t there but it sounds like they did really well. Everyone loves to knock off a top team, everyone loves to go out and prove they can compete and I definitely think we can compete. It would have been nice to play them, I haven’t played them and I know the girls when they did play them, played really well so that would’ve been cool but we can’t change it.”
Holcombe face Buckingham at Stowe School at 2pm on Saturday afternoon.