Senior Spring: Katie Spanos's celebrated field hockey career comes “full circle”
In elementary school, Katie Spanos ’20 dreamed of donning Carolina blue, following in the footsteps of Mia Hamm to become an elite soccer player.
Instead, she pursued a historic athletic career in Hanover, not on the pitch but on AstroTurf. Throughout her four years playing field hockey at Dartmouth, Spanos netted 29 goals and recorded 76 points to rank sixth in total scoring in program history.
“The most special thing about [Spanos] is that as talented as she is, she’s super unselfish,” outgoing associate head coach Pattie Gillern said. “She’s always looking to help the team, and she has a really good sense of when she needs to do something herself or when she can help her teammate do something.”
Spanos said that she made the switch from soccer to field hockey when she began high school. She said that the decision was influenced by her older sister, who helped introduce Spanos — who was originally hesitant — to field hockey.
“I didn't really care for it; I remember I used to say, ‘I don't want to play a sport where I have to carry something around,’” Spanos said. “But once [my sister] started playing and I watched more of her games, I started to come around.”
At Lower Dauphin High School in central Pennsylvania, Spanos played with a powerhouse field hockey program led by head coach Linda Kreiser, who has registered over 800 wins and is an honorary member of the USA Field Hockey Hall of Fame.
When Spanos began the recruiting process during her sophomore year, she said that she had not even heard of Dartmouth. It was Kreiser who encouraged her to make the trip to Hanover. While Spanos had visited other Ivy League schools several times, she first stepped foot on Dartmouth’s campus relatively late during her junior spring. Two weeks later, she committed to play for the Big Green.
Spanos broke out late in high school — her standout season came in her senior year — so Gillern said that the coaching staff only fully recognized her “hidden talent” when she came to play at a spring camp at Dartmouth.
After that weekend, Gillern described the feelings as “mutual.”
“We fell in love with her, and she fell in love with us,” Gillern said.
Spanos went on to start every game over her four years at Dartmouth. After scoring three goals as a freshman, Spanos led the Big Green in goals for the rest of her career, recording nine in the next two seasons and capping her senior campaign off with eight. She was also named to the All-Ivy First Team as a junior and to the Second Team in her sophomore and senior years.
“She was one of the strongest on the field for us at Dartmouth, but also she was respected amongst the other Ivy coaches that voted for her,” Gillern said. “As much as she appreciated and honored those accolades, she definitely wasn’t in it for the individual awards. She really put the team first.”
In addition to being a “natural goal-scorer,” Gillern said that Spanos is a “clutch player under pressure” — eight of her 29 goals were game-winners, and two of them came in overtime.
One of these overtime game-winners, in particular, stands out to Spanos. After playing against Boston College on Sept. 13, Spanos returned home to attend her grandfather’s funeral the next day. She proceeded to compete with her team just a day later against the College of the Holy Cross. Spanos characterized games against Holy Cross as “a battle from the very beginning to the end every year,” and this game was no different.
After goals from each team in the second period, the rest of the game remained scoreless and went into overtime. Even after a “rollercoaster of emotions,” Spanos nabbed a goal six minutes later to capture a win for the Big Green.
“It was a crazy experience because [my grandfather] had just been at our game the weekend before and passed away, unfortunately, the very next day,” Spanos said. “I remember going to the sidelines after [scoring] and just hugging my head coach Amy Fowler. She just said to me ‘He totally saw that.’ That was definitely a special moment where it was bigger than the game of field hockey. Having my whole team there for me and able to cap off the weekend in that way; you couldn't have asked for anything more.”
Spanos was named team captain her senior year, with Jocelyn Wulf ’20 filling the role of assistant captain. After coming in as freshmen onto a small team that Spanos said was “faced with a lot of obstacles,” including attrition of players and injuries, she and Wulf focused on fostering a strong sense of community in the program while also pushing each other to improve.
“After every game, [Spanos] would — no matter what happened — give these rousing speeches in our after-game huddle, and I know a lot of people really looked up to her in those moments,” Wulf said. “She would say that ‘Guys, we have to get back out there; there's still another game next week or tomorrow. We just have to keep doing what we do and keep on fighting.’”
Off the field, Spanos tackled her biology and pre-med course load with similar tenacity. After taking at least one gap year following graduation, she hopes to attend a combined M.D./M.P.H program. In the meantime, she plans to conduct public health research at the Penn State College of Medicine.
“Being a Division I athlete at Dartmouth with such intense academic rigor is definitely some of the most challenging parts of your life, but also the most rewarding,” Spanos said. “It really just shapes your character in a way that I don't think that many other processes could.”
It’s only fitting that during her gap year, Spanos will also return to her high school to coach the junior varsity field hockey team alongside the person who introduced her to the sport: her older sister. While their careers never overlapped in high school, Spanos said that she was excited to pursue coaching with her sister at a program that molded her own career.
“It just comes full circle,” she said. “I really was not ready to walk away from the game entirely yet. I think it's really special being able to go there and give back. Hopefully [I will] help some girls along the path that was so meaningful to me — give them the same thing too.”