Leah Bills, midfielder, University of Pennsylvania
One in an occasional series.
By Al Mattei
This website has many memories of Leah Bills, the fine Penn midfielder whose collegiate career -- perhaps her entire field hockey career -- ended a touch too soon.
One memory is watching an eighth-grader with a smooth swing and playing ability beyond her years, as she snakes around opponents in an indoor game and hits the ball with aplomb outdoors.
Another vision is seeing the ninth-grader exult in assisting on an overtime goal in the quarterfinals of her county tournament.
A further moment is sitting on a hillside, facing away from a goal into which the 11th-grade Bills is shooting during pre-game warmups. Big mistake; her cannon shots pounded the baseboard of the goal and made bystanders -- human, aviary and otherwise -- jump with the report of the ball hitting the wood.
There have been many successes in field hockey for Leah Bills -- none quite as high as the time she was picked to accompany 15 other players as a select team to represent the United States in a field hockey tournament in Valkenswaard, The Netherlands. That inaugural tour was the basis of what is now the U-16 national team program.
Throughout her high-school career, Bills was known for her ball-striking technique. It was a smooth, hitchless delivery that served her well, and only got better with stick speed and maturity.
After Bills enjoyed a good scholastic career, she matriculated to the University of Pennsylvania, a team which had only a few years earlier been to the NCAA Final Four. It was expected that the recruiting classes being brought in would bring the Quakers back to Ivy League supremacy.
She received varying amounts of playing time over her first couple of seasons, blossoming into a stalwart as a defensive midfielder, and exhibiting flashes of brilliance a times.
But Bills' Quakers never saw a league championship. Indeed, her senior year, the Quakers finished with a paltry 1-6 record in the Ivy League.
The Quakers' season ended Nov. 5, 1999, with a loss to Princeton. But Bills never entered into the equation in that game.
In Penn's third-to-last outing of its 5-12 season, Leah Bills was in her element, having one of the finest games of her college career against Yale.
She scored three goals, which gave her the team lead with nine. Then, without warning, she took a turn on the turf, and her Achilles tendon shredded. It is the kind of injury that few people even hobble away from, much less walk.
Leah Bills watched her last two games from the sidelines, and was not at the many events in which college seniors get to participate: the senior all-star game, the National Festival, and "A" Camp, at which the 2000 Olympic Team is selected.
It is a shame that she will not get a chance to even get a chance to represent her country: despite her previous international experience and the passion with which she carried herself her senior year. There were times when, as she barrelled down the field or cut off an attacker to win possession, that she looked like she might be ready to shed the navy and maroon cocoon and trade for wings of red, white, and blue.
Alas, it is not to be. Bills is likely to use her experiences in the summer of 1999 to best advantage -- that experience being an internship at a law office rather than playing field hockey.
Having seen this young woman grow up over a nine-year period, it is hard to think of Leah Bills as anything other than outstanding. Perhaps that will be true in her life after Penn -- and after competitive field hockey.