Lena Tice says she “never even considered” she would be nominated for the FIH Rising Star despite one of the most spectacular years by anyone’s standards, winning medals in four separate jurisdictions.
It started with double success with UCD, landing the EYHL regular season crown and the Irish Senior Cup before the summer’s groundbreaking World Cup silver medal in London.
Hot on those heels, she jetted off down under for a pre-arranged link-up with North Harbour Hawks – helped by contacts set up by Irish assistant coach Colin Stewart – with whom she won the New Zealand Hockey League.
Less planned was her time in Australia but she jumped at the chance of playing for the ACT Strikers and duly won the player of the tournament as well as a bronze medal.
To cap it off, December brought the Rising Star nomination – alongside Ayeisha McFerran’s Goalkeeping of the Year nod – with the voting running for another couple of days.
Reacting to the news, Tice told The Hook her “initial reaction was total shock”.
“It is of course a real honour but it is really just a reflection of this amazing team, the staff and most of all the teammates I have around me. It was far less of a shock to see Ayeisha be nominated for goalkeeper of the year. No one deserves it more than her!”
It has been a meteoric rise to this level for the 21-year-old though she has been an international sports star for over seven years now since making her Irish cricket debut in August 2011.
Hockey began to take centre stage around 2014 and made her senior international debut in November 2015. Crucially, she earned a spot in the Hawkes Bay Cup panel in early 2016 in New Zealand once Graham Shaw and her parents were assured her Leaving Cert studies would not suffer.
“Graham was extremely helpful in that he talked to my parents and my school coaches and accommodated my studies. My parents were happy for me to miss school for hockey in the leaving cert year and they supported me all the way.
“I had to work hard around it and get the most out of my time. But I knew I wanted to get as many games under my belt as possible and I definitely wanted to be on that plane to New Zealand.
“It was an incredible opportunity at a young age. The other squad members were always supportive and welcoming as a entered the squad. I also had my best friend Zoe [Wilson] there with me to learn the ropes with! She probably caught on quicker than me though!”
It proved formative and Tice went on to play in each of 2017’s big events, earning qualification for the World Cup. The low point was the Europeans in Amsterdam, surviving relegation by the skin of their teeth.
But, out of that tournament’s debrief, the lessons learned proved invaluable.
“The Europeans in 2017 was a tough tournament, by anyone’s standards but it made us tougher and more resilient. It forced us to grow and get stronger as a unit.
“Our team culture was tested and as a result, forced to get better and better. And I think if you ask any of the girls, it was our culture that stood to us the most at the World Cup. So now we must build on it again because we know our togetherness will be a huge deciding factor on our road to Tokyo.”
Quite how that would manifest itself from her personal perspective, though, is something she could never have envisaged when she was penning her list of goals at the start of 2018.
“I do set goals. But they are mostly performance related instead of outcome related. Obviously my goal was to get selected for the World Cup and for us as a team to compete at a high level.
“However, I would be lying if I said a World Cup silver medal or medals in Australia and New Zealand were even considered! This year has been a real blessing. I’m incredibly thankful to have had the opportunities that I have and I’m well aware that the timing worked itself out incredibly well for me in order to allow me to go away and play. It’s been amazing for all of us!”
Reflecting on the year gone by, Tice looks back on a slightly bittersweet time with UCD in some respects.
“We performed extremely well in the league the entire season and came away with the ISC but unfortunately came up short in the the Champions Trophy.
“It was definitely a tough one to stomach at the time and took a few weeks to get over. Playing for UCD means a lot to me and it was a special team to be a part of.”
She also picked up a hamstring injury early in the European Club Cup in Surbiton, an event she had dreamed of playing in, and was ruled out after game one.
The World Cup followed soon after but she had precious little time to savour the moment as she embarked on her southern hemisphere odyssey.
“Yeah it was definitely a bit hard leaving,” she admitted as the team enjoyed numerous special invitations to a range of events off the back of their heroics.
“I left Ireland 10 days after the final and so it did feel like I was leaving a lot behind. It’s always hard leaving the girls after a tournament, never mind a tournament like that.
“When you have been in each others pockets for so many weeks or months, and shared so much, it’s always hard to part ways for a while. I also have terrible fear of missing out, haha. But once I arrived down under, it was all go and I had a great two weeks holiday before starting hockey in New Zealand.
“It was a good quality tournament, definitely testing me in new ways. It was an easy enough transition into a very welcoming new team. It always takes a week or two to settle but once I had become a little more accustomed to the style and got to know the girls, it turned out to be an absolutely fantastic few weeks, topped off by a tournament win.
“The Australian Hockey League was a very strong standard. When playing against Victoria, New South Wales or Queensland, you would be lining out against teams with eight or nine Hockeyroos on the field at times. It was very fast and took some adjusting to but definitely taught me a lot. The Australian style is fast and attacking, so again, challenged me in new ways.”
London, though, will always remain the highlight and Tice is keen to see it as the beginning of a sustained period of success for the Green Army on the world stage.
“The World Cup was like a dream. I would be lying if I said I thought we would come home with a medal but I definitely knew we had something special in us and we still do.
“We have a lot of talent and experience in or squad and, more importantly, we have an abundance of drive. So we have put the World Cup to bed and we are totally focused on June 2019 and the Hockey Series Finals.”