Cookson Commands Field Hockey with Deft Touch

Cookson Fire
Co-captain Ellie Cookson passes the ball against Princeton. The midfielder holds the Harvard record for assists.

On Sept. 15 at Dedham Field, Harvard women’s field hockey lined up for a penalty corner against Northeastern, barely three minutes into the game. Sophomore midfielder Casey Allen passed to fellow midfield and team co-captain Ellie Cookson, who settled down the ball for high-flying sophomore Bente van Vlijmen. The forward’s shot rippled the net.

That tally was the first in what would end up as a 7-3 win for the Crimson. But that wasn’t the only reason that goal was special.

Cookson’s assist gave her 27 total in her career at Harvard, propelling her to the top of the Crimson’s career assists list and breaking a record that’s over 10 years old. She’s since extended her lead to a comfortable 32 and shows no signs of stopping. To the senior, this distinction is just a small part of what she hopes to accomplish in her last year on the team.

“It was mostly special because it showed how many goals we’ve scored,” says Cookson. “It’s really special to know that you have a pretty big impact, even if it is just assists.”

But with assists, naturally, come goals. This season, Harvard (11-4, 4-1 Ivy) has seen an explosion of scoring from several different players, outshooting opponents 275-121. The team has reached seven goals in three games this year. For comparison, the last time the Crimson scored seven goals in one game before this fall was in 2003. The past few weeks, Harvard has seen its most lopsided wins in program history against Brown, Penn, and Holy Cross. There’s certainly something special cooking on the offensive end for the Crimson—and Cookson is a big part of that. While she has only one goal on the season, she leads the team with eight assists.

“As a [midfielder] you’re the connection between the defence and the forward. You have to be able to see both sides of the field…and put yourself in the best position to get the ball towards the attackers,” says Cookson. “There’s nothing quite as satisfying as finding a really good pass.”

Fellow co-captain and midfielder Hannah Wellington isn’t surprised by Cookson’s growth. She can remember a time when the pair were newcomers to a team that, just the season before, had posted a disappointing 2-5 Ivy record. The next few years brought about a visible change, however. Harvard finished 4-3 in the Ancient Eight in 2014 and 2015. Cookson started all 17 games her rookie year, finishing with a team-leading 11 assists.

“Ellie came into the team as this young player who had so much energy and passion for field hockey,” Wellington recalls. “As she grew older, she went on to refine that energy, point it in the right direction to become really tenacious on the field, and redefine herself as...an extremely tactically aware player who can not just focus on her own game, but also influence and direct others.”

Cookson’s tactical strength is apparent in the way she talks about the game; she grows visibly animated when discussing strategy. The on-the-spot thinking that goes into field hockey is her favorite part of both the game and her position.

“We plan around the [other] teams and their structures, but at the end of the day it’s all about reading what the other team is doing and being able to adapt,” Cookson says. “The big thing with our team is trusting the process and trusting the plan...but we’re encouraged to add our own spice to it. If it’s not exactly working the way we planned, adapt to it.”

Back in high school, the Oakville, Ontario, native captained both the field hockey team and the rugby team, while also dabbling in curling. The tactical aspect of field hockey, among other things, is what led her to follow the path into collegiate field hockey rather than rugby.

“I broke my foot and my collarbone in April of my senior year,” says Cookson. “I thought about playing rugby here too, but I don’t have the injury threshold like I used to. Field hockey is a mental game as much as a physical one, and I think that aspect of it really draws me to it.”

But what about curling, one wonders? Cookson pauses before answering.

“You can’t get recruited for curling,” she says. “I also was really, really bad.”

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