Talia Schenck had always figured to be a popular person among college field hockey coaches.

A rising junior at Lawrence High School, Schenck set school single season and career scoring records as a freshman and a sophomore. She ranks as one of the 50 best players in her class nationwide. In 2019, she finished 15th in the nation in goals scored. She is a member of the national team’s U16 Futures program. She has won Mercer County player of the year, along with every other individual honor at the local level.

Lawrence High School junior Talia Schenck stands with a sculpture on the campus of Cornell University, where Schenck—one of the best players in the state—has committed to continue her academic and athletic career. She has set school scoring records each of her first two seasons at LHS.

Coming into the final half of her high school career, Schenck surely expected to receive some attention from college coaches wanting her to continue her athletic and academic career at their schools.

But what happened on June 15 even took Schenck by surprise.

The NCAA—the governing body for most college athletics programs—-imposes restrictions for when and how its coaches can recruit high school students. In 2020, for the first time, coaches could not contact potential recruits until after June 15 of the student’s sophomore year.

For Schenck, that was June 15 of this year, and not even a minute had expired before the first email arrived. Ultimately, 30 schools contacted Schenck, a remarkable number especially when considering only 78 colleges have Division I field hockey teams.

“One coach, when I was a little overwhelmed, she said to me, ‘Take this as a compliment because someone wanting you to join their family is the biggest compliment they could give you.’” Schenck said. “So, it was just really, really, really exciting.”

Two months later, on Aug. 19, Schenck closed her recruitment by committing to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Schenck loved the campus and the coaching staff at Cornell, as well as the fact the university has one of the best animal science programs in the country. She intends to major in animal science/pre-veterinary.

She picked Cornell from a final list that also included Top 30 teams Princeton, UConn, Syracuse, St. Joseph’s, Penn State, Rutgers and Monmouth.

Some college-bound high school students won’t make a decision on where they’ll go to school until March or April of their senior year, after months of deliberation. But to Schenck, the nine weeks between opening and closing the recruitment process was long enough. She’s glad she’ll be able to spend the last two years of high school focusing on what she loves: field hockey.

“Being able to use something that I love doing as a way to help my future beyond field hockey is just a blessing,” Schenck said. “And being able to see how far I’ve come just makes me love it even more.”

* * *

The one thing you should know about Talia Schenck is that she isn’t lying when she says she loves field hockey.

Schenck plays organized field hockey year round, and even during her lightest season, she’s playing with her club four days a week. But the time spent training with the Lawrence High field hockey team and the Princeton Field Hockey Club often isn’t enough for her. Schenck concedes that field hockey is her “source of entertainment.”

So, she’ll spend nights watching field hockey highlights, old international games and instructional videos, trying to find inspiration from the best forwards and midfielders in the game. To further perfect her skills, she somehow convinced her parents Gary and Janice to install a strip of turf and a regulation field hockey goal—12 feet wide and 7 feet tall—in their backyard after hearing that former US National Team player Kat Sharkey had a goal in her backyard as a child.

“I was like, ‘I would absolutely love to have this.’ And it was just an unrealistic thing,” Schenck said. “Like, we would never get a goal in our backyard. I never even asked for it because it was so unrealistic. Then one Christmas, my parents walked me outside.”

There stood the goal where Schenck has spent most of her time since.

“Sometimes people ask her what her hobbies are; her hobby is field hockey,” Lawrence High School field hockey head coach Megan Errico said. “That is it for her. She loves it. It’s not only a sport, it’s her outlet.”

Schenck found the game of field hockey at 8, after her brother’s girlfriend at the time—then an athlete at LHS—recommended she try it. Schenck signed up for a township recreation program held in a school gym that winter. Only five girls showed up.

It was an inauspicious start to her field hockey career. Even though Schenck didn’t love her first field hockey experience, she returned to the sport the next year to attend clinics at Princeton Day School, run by Cris Maloney. Schenck remembers mostly wanting to run around and have fun, but her potential still caught Maloney’s eye.

An elementary-school-aged Talia Schenck (left) learns the game of field hockey from Cris Maloney during an introductory clinic May 3, 2014. Schenck learned so quickly that Maloney “pretty much had to kick her out.”

“I remember working with Talia when she came to an introductory field hockey program I ran in Princeton,” Maloney said. “She was such a fast learner that I pretty much had to kick her out and send her over to Princeton Field Hockey Club, which I knew would provide her with a more challenging environment.”

Schenck did as Maloney suggested, moving on to the Princeton Field Hockey Club in sixth grade, even if the decision wasn’t entirely hers. At PFHC, under the supervision of the Princeton University field hockey coaching staff, something clicked for Schenck.

“My parents, they didn’t really ask me,” Schenck said. “They just signed me up. I’m glad that happened.”

Schenck then spent several years turning heads with the Princeton Field Hockey Club and the Lawrence Middle School team. Errico heard the buzz, but the coach wasn’t sure what to expect—middle school field hockey is a lot different than high school varsity level.

Then, she saw Schenck play.

“I’ve never seen a player as skilled,” Errico said. “She’s absolutely incredible. She’s just something that the school has never seen before.”

By now, pretty much no one is surprised by Schenck’s talent. Teams focus their defensive game plans around her. Errico has all the Cardinals wear pennies over their uniforms before games, so opponents can’t identify players by their jersey numbers and pick out Schenck. It doesn’t matter; they find her anyway.

But even if they put two or three defenders on Schenck, opposing teams haven’t been able to slow her down much. She’s often one step ahead of the defense, eyeing the goalie at midfield, planning her attack. With this calculating approach, Schenck has scored 80 goals in her first two seasons.

Team success has come, too. In 2018, Schenck’s freshman year, Lawrence finished above .500 for the first time in a decade. Last year, Lawrence won its division, and went undefeated in conference play. The Cardinals beat every team in the CVC except Princeton, which they tied.

Schenck is quick to point out it has been a total team effort. She isn’t in goal. She isn’t in the midfield, taking advantage of the defensive attention Schenck draws. Her teammates know how to give Schenck space, but also anticipate her movement so they are in perfect position to receive a pass. The Lawrence High defense has been sturdy, with Errico saying its play has been “amazing” the last few years.

If that defensive prowess has something to do with having to play against one of the best field hockey athletes in the country every day in practice, Schenck won’t take credit for it.

“She’s humble in the sense that she doesn’t want anyone to think she thinks she’s better,” Errico said. “She’s very humble about her skill.”

The Cardinals know they can play without Schenck. They have experience, after she hurt her ankle in the Princeton tie and wound up missing the entire postseason. The Cardinals lost to eventual champion Stuart Day School in the Mercer County Tournament quarterfinals. They later earned the first seed in the Central Jersey Group II sectional tournament, winning a couple games before losing in the semifinals to powerhouse Seneca, which went on to win the whole tournament.

It was the first time Schenck had to watch a team play without her. It drove her nuts. But it also fueled her.

“It taught me to look from an outside lens,” Schenck said. “People always say when you’re going through recruiting, ‘Look at the school without field hockey.’ So, that was me looking at my life without field hockey for a few weeks. When I came back, I was a better player for it. My work rate increased, seeing what I missed out on. I mean, it wasn’t a good thing but the best came out of it.”

Talia Schenck, now entering her junior year at Lawrence High School, set scoring records her first two seasons.

This year’s Lawrence team will be without six seniors from the 2019 team, but also return a ton of upperclassmen with experience. Now in her 8th season as head coach, Errico said the Cardinals have the potential to be as good, if not better, than last year.

Schenck wants to score her 100th career goal, which she should accomplish this year if she stays healthy and the Cardinals play a full season.

But mostly, she’s focused on team goals. She wants to rectify how last year ended. She wants to win counties. She wants this LHS team to leave a legacy.

“I’m proud of what I’ve done individually but I’m now seeing the bigger picture and what’s important as a team,” Schenck said.

* * *

Lawrence, like most of Mercer County, can’t be counted as a field hockey hotbed. But there’s a chance that could be changing.

Crowds larger than any Errico can remember started coming to Lawrence High field hockey games last season. The Cardinal Crazies—the LHS student section—showed up to the away game at Notre Dame last year, cheering the team to a win. During the state tournament, teachers brought their classes out to watch the field hockey team, even though the game happened during school hours. Other sports teams—often viewed as higher on the athletic pecking order—started making comments about how good the field hockey team was.

Schenck had been somewhat aware about the hype building within the school, but it didn’t hit her fully until the middle school field hockey team started attending the LHS games. The LMS team was larger—much larger—than Schenck had ever seen it.

“Last year, it was crazy to see how many girls came out to play,” Schenck said.

Errico has an idea why.

“She’s helped change Lawrence’s program,” the head coach said. “Lawrence was really good in the early 2000s, and then we struggled for a while, especially because a lot of girls go to private schools. And just in her two seasons, she’s changed the program. I can’t say it’s just her, but the girls want to be better because she brings that. They want to rise to her level. It’s pretty cool.”

Schenck, for her part, can relate. She remembers looking at the Lawrence High record board as a middle school student, idolizing the names displayed. Now, her name appears on the board, and she takes seriously the position she finds herself in as a role model and a building block.

“It’s just really cool to think beyond myself and my high school years to what younger players see,” she said.

But Schenck isn’t ready to ease up or go fully retrospective yet. She still has two years left with the Lawrence team and her career at Cornell ahead of her. While she doesn’t imagine she’ll advance much further beyond college field hockey, Schenck knows the game will always be part of her. She said she’ll keep playing the way she has for as long as she enjoys it.

“I don’t think my motivation and planning and the reason why I went out there and worked my hardest was to be able to get to a school,” Schenck said. “I worked so hard because I love doing it…The reason I do it isn’t to achieve all these things. I do it because that’s what I love to do.”