Kristina Taylor has been a standout player at Shippensburg University, where she has led her team to the national championship game and is also the reigning national player of the year. But over the past 18 months, Taylor’s most impressive quality as an athlete could be her emotional toughness.
On Oct. 5, Kristina Taylor played the most emotional game of her career, with the stands packed with supporters…except for the person she wanted most to be there was unable to make it.
Taylor began playing field hockey in the seventh grade following in her father’s footsteps. James Taylor, who had been a roller hockey standout and taught his daughter the basics about the sport he loved so much. Taylor coached his daughter to be tough:
“I was rough around the edges just like him,” Kristina said.
When Kristina entered high school, her father changed roles from coach to cheerleader. Before every game, James would give the same pregame speech to his daughter: Play the team, play together, be aggressive, go for the ball, its yours.
“He would say stuff to get me psyched up before a game” Kristina said. Taylor’s success in high school play led her to Shippensburg University. “Shippensburg had a family atmosphere, they cared about me as an individual,” Taylor said.
Kristina fit right in with the Raiders’ way of play:
“We pride ourselves on being a team, we don’t need stars, we need a team. She cheered the team and did whatever we asked her to do, and still to this day as a senior she pulls goals and helps clean up equipment after practice,” said Shippensburg head coach Bertie Landes. “She had a high level of respect for her teammates and coaches when she first came in,” said assistant coach Amanda Houser. In her first two seasons with Shippensburg Taylor scored 38 goals and added 16 assists to tally a total of 82 points.
Her Father was front and center watching every game. In her sophomore season the Raiders finished with an NCAA semifinal appearance.
Her junior year was going to be a big year for her and the program, but Taylor got shocking news at the end of her sophomore year. Her father was diagnosed with lung cancer. “He hid it really well in the beginning, he told me to stop worrying about him, and to only worry about myself and worry about next season and my training,” Taylor said.
Despite her dad’s advice, in her junior season Taylor was not playing well:
“Everyone said I was doing fine but I knew I wasn’t measuring up to my own expectations. He didn’t want me to be distracted because of what he was going through,” she said.
Her dad continued to remind her to focus on the game and eventually Kristina overcame her shaky start and began to play well. Despite his illness, James Taylor continued to attend his daughter’s game to cheer her on.
“He was there for most of the games, he was covered in blankets but he would come when he could,” Said Coach Landis. Taylor led Shippensburg to an amazing season as the Raiders made it all the way to the national title game. Taylor’s brother, Matt, helped finance a trip for his parents so they could see Kristina play her big game in Louisville Kentucky. James Taylor was in the stands that day to watch his daughter play the biggest game of her career. Unfortunately for the Raiders, they lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to UMass-Lowell.
One week later, Kristina received the news that she had been named Division II player of the year. “It was bittersweet, I would rather have a team award then an individual award,” Taylor said. However her dad felt differently: “Oh he was ecstatic, both my parents were so proud, but my Dad told me ‘ok you got the award — now start working towards next year’ I didn’t get a lunch or a dinner or flowers or anything, I got a swift pat on the butt and was told to win next year.”
Unfortunately for Taylor, that summer between her junior and senior season proved to be a tough one. Her father’s condition had worsened and on June 17th Taylor pleaded with her father on his deathbed to stop fighting, that she loved him and that she and the rest of the family we’re going to be fine. James Taylor passed a few minutes later.
What happened next caught Taylor by surprise:
“My Facebook message inbox exploded the amount of texts and emails and letters of support I got were incredible. At my father’s memorial all the coaches and almost everyone on the team showed up, some people cut their vacations, and made an effort to come. I still to this day don’t know how to say thank you.” Taylor said. Assistant coach Houser noted, “It was a grieving period for all of us, anytime we have to go through adversity we are always supporting each other. I can’t even imagine the level of emotional support Kristina had. We had parents of players who were upperclassmen and parents of freshman players who showed up to Mr. Taylor’s memorial. Field hockey is just a game but the relationships that develop are much greater.”
Before preseason started, Kristina was having trouble focusing on the season and frequently felt sick, but it was her mother who assumed the role of coach/motivator: “She told me to focus on the season, that my father and I shared a special connection, and that he would have wanted me to play field hockey and have a great season,” Taylor said.
To honor their number one fan, Shippebsburg planned a game dedicated to James Taylor on Oct. 5th: “I found out what they wanted to do and I saw the shirt they made, and I started to cry,” Kristina said. Each team member’s shirt was emblazoned with the name “Taylor” and a big number 1 on the back. At the game, funds were solicited for the LUNGevity foundation. “I had a bunch of my friends at the game, my brother, my mom. People gave donations, some people who didn’t even know me, but they felt what I felt and reached out and supported me and my cause,” said Taylor.
Taylor has led Shippensburg back to national title contention this season. The Raiders are 17-3 and the No. 2 team in the south region for the NCAA tournament. Kristina is also top-five in the nation for goals per game and points per game. She hopes that this time she captures the national title, and she knows her number one fan is cheering her on: “I know he is watching me, and once I step onto that field, I feel like I am closer to him. I feel a sense a relief knowing that he is always there.”