Sept. 21, 2011
Editor's note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, July 28, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2011-12 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The winning tradition of the University of Iowa field hockey program lured Kathleen "Merty" McGraw to Iowa City. Well, sort of.
McGraw, nicknamed "Merty" when her two older sisters -- toddlers at the time -- couldn't pronounce the name Alexander Bessmertnykh, a Russian minister of foreign affairs that her father jokingly called her on the day she was born, started playing field hockey as a freshman at Saint Francis High School. She was the "new kid" wanting to be involved to make friends.
She fell in love with the game.
"I had never seen it before," said McGraw, a native of Atherton, Calif., who has been Iowa's starting goalkeeper for three seasons. "I kind of just tried playing it and fell in love with it."
During her sophomore season, McGraw began thinking about the prospects of playing collegiately. With her lack of experience, she didn't get the exposure to be recruited by the "big time" schools, so she took the matter into her own hands.
"The plan for my life was to play collegiate softball," said McGraw, who has started 38 consecutive games for Iowa. "Around the end of my sophomore year of field hockey I started to get a little more serious about it. When I realized I wanted to play in college, I knew I was going to have to make it happen.
"I looked up that year who the top teams (in the country) were and Iowa was in the top five. I thought, `maybe I'll check that out, I guess it is the closest to home besides the California schools."
"She actually did a lot of recruiting on her own," said UI head coach Tracey Griesbaum. "She really sought the University of Iowa out and our program."
Her recruiting paid off. McGraw arrived on campus in 2009 as one of three goalkeepers on the roster, and she quickly moved up the depth chart. She made her first appearance as a Hawkeye in the second game of the season against No. 4 North Carolina and had her first career start at No. 17 Massachusetts. She went on to start 16 games during her true freshman season, ranking fifth in the Big Ten with 67 saves and third with two shutouts.
"It was a surprise," said Griesbaum of McGraw playing from day one. "It's one of those things where you're really happy it worked out the way it did.
"We thought she'd come in pretty raw, and she did, but she really took a step forward each and every day her freshman year. It was pretty early on that we knew she earned the position and has really had it ever since."
During her sophomore season, McGraw tallied three shutouts and 73 saves, but the team struggled, going 3-14 and 0-6 in the Big Ten. After the season, the team went to work, vowing to not let the 2010 season repeat itself.
"Our whole team has been working hard since the end of last season, almost the day after the season ended, because we weren't going to have another season like we did last year," said McGraw.
That hard work started paying dividends early for McGraw. This past summer, she was named to the USA U21 Junior National and 2011 Midwest Junior High Performance Squads. She earned additional recognition, being selected as the "Goalkeeper of the Tournament" at the USA Junior High Performance National Championship.
"There were a lot of parts of my game that we knew I needed to improve, and we've been working on it and working on it," said McGraw. "You have a few spring games, but you don't really get to see actual improvement until you go to a tournament like I went to.
"Having the results I had there, playing well, making a lot of saves, helping keep our team in a lot of games was enough to me. That (the award) was more of an `icing on the cake' type of thing."
McGraw has carried that success into the early portion of this season. The Hawkeyes have posted a 7-1 record overall, while McGraw has 28 saves, one shutout and a 1.34 goals against average.
"Merty's leadership qualities are phenomenal," said Griesbaum. "Her teammates look to her to understand what is going on and what the play needs at that time. She gives a lot of confidence to her teammates.
"She's very demanding, but they know at the end of the day, she has their back. She has an innate ability to lead, where she means business, but she also has that soft side to her at the appropriate times. She's getting it done, and is really stepping it up."
The UI field hockey and goalkeeping tradition lured McGraw to the University of Iowa, now she's doing her part to carry it on.
"I know it's there, but I don't try and think about it that much," said McGraw. "I am trying to be the best athlete I can be personally. If I uphold that tradition, that is a goal of mine, and that's what I want to do, but it isn't a daunting thing for me."
"We've had phenomenal goalkeepers -- Olympians, World Cup athletes, All-American, multi-year All-Americans and National Team players," said Griesbaum. "She's going in the right direction. She's on the way to being a very, very good goalkeeper at Iowa, and that's saying a lot."
McGraw is majoring in finance in the Henry B. Tippie College of Business. She hopes to work in the business sector of the Peace Corps upon graduation.