June 6, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - To memorialize their 2013 Big Ten Tournament Championship, the members of Michigan State field hockey team donned pajamas for the bus ride home from Columbus, Ohio.
Most of the Spartans spent the northward journey buzzing over the 3-2 victory against Iowa that earned them an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But there was three-time team captain and biosytems engineering master's degree candidate Kristen Henn - called "Gigs" because of her penchant for giggling - tucked away in a cozy corner, preparing for a linear algebra test coming up in 24 hours.
"It was kind of surreal," said MSU head coach Helen Knull. "Everybody's kind of on cloud nine in their onesies and reliving the moment of what happened, reading things on social media or texting with friends. But with Gigs, her studying was just normal and everyone respected it. We knew we would probably have a play-in game (at MSU vs. Miami of Ohio) on Wednesday, so she had already calculated what she had coming that week and already getting her stuff done.
"It's just who she is."
Henn's athletic prowess, academic reach and interpersonal impact have earned her elite status as a sportswoman and scholar. On Friday, she was named MSU's female recipient of the Big Ten Medal of Honor, which for 100 years has been a celebration of the student-athlete experience on conference campuses and a predictor of remarkable post-collegiate performance and achievement in sports and beyond.
While Henn has often been singled out for her accomplishments, being a part of the Big Ten's centennial Medal of Honor class is on an entirely different level.
"I actually spent some time the other day looking at the whole list of people, and it's so cool to be in that group," said Henn. "If you look at just some recent big Spartans on it, Jenilee Rathje from volleyball and Kirk Cousins with football, it's such an amazing group.
"It was just kind of lucky for me to be graduating this year, but being a part of 100 years of history is something you really can't put into words. It just shows what a great conference we're a part of."
After leading the Spartans to 3-0 win against Miami in a play-in game and a 2-1 upset of second-ranked and NCAA regional host Syracuse in the first round, snapping the Orange's 45-game home win streak, Henn's field hockey career came to an end with a with a 3-1 loss to Connecticut in the Elite Eight. It was MSU's third trip to the regional finals in six seasons.
Selected to the National Field Hockey Coaches Association Academic Squad for the fourth-straight year, Henn was voted MSU's Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year by her teammates. Her leadership on and off the field was vital, as 12 other Spartans also earned Big Ten and/or NFHCA academic recognition.
"She always put the team first and she always did the work," Knull said. "If somebody wasn't pulling their weight, either in the classroom or in conditioning or on the field, she had the backbone to say to them, `Hey, you have to do more,' and everyone listened to her because she had already done that.
"She always prioritizes and is very driven. She knew she wanted to excel in our engineering program and as a student-athlete, and that her relationships with her teammates, her coaches, her professors and her family were also important, and she found a way to balance it. It wasn't always easy for her and sometimes she was really stressed, but she realized she had to give up things she'd rather be doing. Not everybody has that drive, that passion and that fire to do it. She does things right."
Henn's character came through after scoring a career-high nine goals and personal-best 21 points while earning second-team All-Big Ten honors as a forward in 2010.
"I remember having the first conversation with her about playing her in our backfield, at a position we call our fullback, or sweeper," Knull said. "It's a major controller, almost quarterback-ish. It's not a huge attacking position and going from an All-Big Ten forward to being told by your coach, `Hey, I'm going to be moving you back into this position,' took some understanding of the reasoning why, the qualities of that position and what she possesses to play it.
"She didn't have the same attacking opportunities, but we started to develop her in our attack-corner plays. She really worked hard on our corner striking and her deflecting, which this year especially was a huge threat for us. So you look at her as a leader on the field, someone who was going to be vocal, who was going to set her teammates up, who was going to be selfless and going to be under pressure a lot of times in 1-v-1 situations, and she always handled it.
"She always said, `Whatever I have to do for the team, I'm going to do.' She is by far one of the most humble kids I ever coached."
The lines between athletics and academics have always been blurred for Henn, who became a master at juggling team and individual pursuits en route to completing her bachelor's degree in May of 2012.
"Our coaches do a really good job of making academics our No. 1 priority," she said. "Most coaches would claim that, but we've had people miss games for academics-related reasons, so the support we get on that is invaluable. People on different teams would say you're crazy for choosing a major like engineering, but the coaches always told me that it was great and to pursue what you want to do because no one's going pro in field hockey. They always push us to go for what we want our career to be."
Playing field hockey while embarking on her postgraduate studies allowed Henn to satisfy two ambitions this past fall.
"I love team-oriented sports," she said. "The most rewarding thing about it is being part of a group and achieving something way bigger than yourself. When I look our successful season - we're Big Ten Champs and we had a great tournament run - I attribute that so much more to my teammates. I'm not the one scoring the goals and while I may be playing well in the defensive area, all of my team is there and we're achieving it together.
"In the classroom, it's more of a personal thing. Still, you can never achieve anything without the support the people around you, and if it wasn't for the support staff we have at MSU for student-athletes, it would have been a lot more difficult. I think I had better grades in the fall during (field hockey) season than when we were out of season. You really hone your time-management skills. You really focus hard knowing that you have to perform well in season as well. You're not just an athlete in the fall; you're also a student and that comes first."
"Better," of course, is a relative term for Henn, who sported a 3.78 grade-point average through fall semester while taking classes like Analytical Chemistry II. The physical toll doesn't compare to the mental grind, as far as she's concerned.
"Knowing I have this huge exam coming up on Monday of next week but we have a really big weekend of games forces you to be able to compartmentalize and stay focused for your games and then right away to be able to switch right back to the academic side," Henn said. "Something that's really special about Michigan State is they really look at fostering you as a person.
"It really is about being a student first. And even though we're a small, women's sport, we have so much support athletically and academically, and both those things are so fantastic. We're fortunate to have an environment that encourages academic success and a lot of athletic success as well."
After completing her master's, Henn will either pursue a Ph.D. or begin an engineering career in the renewable energy industry.
"I had a goal of graduating with over a 3.5 GPA in engineering, which I accomplished, so that was cool," she said. "And, we won the Big Ten when I was a freshman but I wanted to win another championship before I left. We accomplished that, too, so that's kind of cool that I have bookends on my career."