A week shy of her 20th birthday, Abigail Raye already owns a field hockey résumé befitting a seasoned veteran.
When the Canadian women’s team steps on the pitch Sunday in Vienna, it will mark the Kelowna Secondary School grad’s 50th international match.
To Field Hockey Canada’s knowledge, Raye will be the youngest player in the program’s history to reach the milestone.
“It’s a great honour,” Raye said of her upcoming 50th cap. “Looking to the future, I guess it means I’m headed in the right direction. I’ll get to use my experience to improve my game and to help the team. It’s exciting to have this many caps at my age.”
Raye and the Canadian team are in Austria over the next week for the Women’s Champions Challenge II, a tournament which also features Italy, Belgium, Belarus, Russia, Malaysia, Chile and Austria.
Raye’s 49th cap will come Saturday against Austria, with No. 50 to follow a day later against the Chileans.
The international event will mark another step in Raye’s continuing and rapid development as a key player with the national women’s program.
Raye has come a long way since getting her first cap against Ireland at age 17 when she was still attending high school.
She has since been a starter for the Canadian women in every international game, including the Pan Am Cup in Bermuda 2009, the Champions Challenge II in Russia 2009, a world cup qualifier tournament in San Diego 2010 and the Commonwealth Games in India 2010. Raye also spent a couple of months in Britain last year playing for Canterbury, one of the top teams in the U.K.
The fact that Raye has gained so much experience at a relatively young age is due in part to Field Hockey Canada’s initiative to develop its younger talent at a quicker pace than in the past.
Funding from Sport Canada through the Own the Podium initiative has been a big boost for the program as a whole, as well young players such as Raye.
“We’re focusing on our younger athletes, getting them into more games at a younger age so they can develop that much more quickly,” said assistant coach Paul Bundy. “The average age for other countries right now is likely 26 or 27. Our goal is to get the core of our players up to 100 caps before they’re 25. Physically and mentally it should be a great benefit to the players and the program. Abi fits right into that plan.”
As for Raye’s work and personal development on the pitch, Bundy said the former Kelowna Owls player continues to make significant strides.
“The biggest thing I see from Abi is that her fundamental skills are fantastic,” Bundy added. “She’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen at intercepting the ball. She’s very mature of her age, her hockey technical skills are very good. Many of the things she does out there are world class.”
As a defender, Raye puts a large degree of her skills to use in preventing the ball from finding the back of the Canadian net.
But it’s a position on the pitch that still offers Raye plenty of variety.
“I’m loving the position,” said Raye, the CIS rookie of the year in 2009 with the UBC Thunderbirds. “There’s a lot of freedom in the style we play I’m able to get involved in so many different situations. There are a lot of 100 yard runs up the right-side, it’s a test for the cardio, so there aren’t too many dull moments.”
In addition to focusing on improving her own game, Raye’s energies over the next 18 months will be doing her part to help the Canadian women move up in the world rankings. Currently rated 19th, the program’s ultimate goal will be to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2012 in London.
But first things first, the Canadians hope to make some significant progress over the next week in Austria.
“It’s a chance to improve our ranking,” said Raye, who has finished two years in the Human Kinetics program at UBC Vancouver. “We’ve been stuck on 19 for a while. We definitely feel like we have a good chance to win our pool and get to the semifinals. It would be a good step for us.”
This summer, Raye and Team Canada will host Japan for a series of exhibition matches. Then in October, the Canadians will travel to Mexico for the Pan American Games.