WHAT a difference a few years can make. Not too long ago, the Scottish Women’s hockey team wasn’t even in the top division in Europe and it was in a constant battle to stay within touching distance of the top sides. However, the past few years have seen the international team go from strength to strength and next week the team will make history by competing in the World League Semi-Finals for the first time.

The tournament in Brussels has some of the world’s best teams taking part, including the world number one, the Netherlands, and while it will be a stiff test for the Scots there is only anticipation and excitement for Nicki Cochrane, who gained her 50th cap for Scotland earlier this year, at the prospect of playing in such a significant tournament for the first time.

“We’re all so excited about this tournament – it feels like we’ve been building up to it for so long,” the goalkeeper says. “This is huge for us – for pretty much all of the players in the squad this will be the biggest tournament we’ve ever played in.”

The Scots will have little time to find their feet though. Their first match, on Wednesday, is against the Netherlands, but taking on the best team in the world is, says Cochrane, a massive opportunity.

“It’s not nerve-wracking that we’re up against Holland first – it’s just really exciting,” the 23-year-old insists. “We have nothing to lose and so we can just go out there and enjoy the experience. This is the reason you train – to play against the best players in the world – so I can’t wait.”

The Scots are currently ranked 17th in the world, with much of their improvement down to increased funding from Sportscotland, which has enabled the entire squad to be full-time athletes in the lead-up to major competitions. However, but for a twist of fate, Cochrane may never have picked up a hockey stick.

As a teenager living in Paris with her family, Cochrane was a football player. But when her geography teacher, who doubled as the school’s hockey coach, was looking for a new hockey goalkeeper, she suggested that Cochrane give it a try. It was a moment that was to change her life. “I’ve never looked back since trying hockey for that first time,” she says. “When I came back to Scotland, my school didn’t play football so I played more hockey and it’s gone from there.”

Even Cochrane could not have anticipated how swift her progress would be, with her potential rewarded at the start of this year with a coveted spot in the GB squad for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic cycle. Her selection was, she admits, something of a surprise. “It’s so brilliant to have been picked for GB – I wasn’t expecting it so it’s a dream come true.”

Cochrane’s selection for the British squad could not have come at a better time – with GB Women winning gold at Rio last summer the Scot is surrounded by Olympic champions. At times it does, she admits, feel somewhat surreal. “Walking into the squad for the first time was quite nerve-wracking,” she reveals. “But, fortunately, I’ve known a few of the girls for a while through age-group teams and so that helped.

“Sometimes though, I’ll be sitting in a team meeting and look around and just think, ‘Oh my goodness, this is an Olympic gold medal-winning team and I’m in a squad with them!’ So that’s pretty crazy but it’s really cool. I watched the final in Rio and I could never have imagined that, six months later, I’d be in a squad with them.”

Cochrane also has the advantage of training alongside one of the heroes of that Rio victory – goalkeeper Maddie Hinch, who is widely acknowledged as the best goalkeeper in the world, which can only help to raise Cochrane’s own level. “It’s unbelievable to train with Maddie Hinch,” she says. “I feel like I’m learning something new every day and she’s great – she’s always giving out advice.

“Watching and training with the GB players makes you realise they’re not superhuman or doing any secret training to make them so good – it’s all just down to really hard work, determination and taking your opportunities when they come.”

Next week’s World League Semi-Finals is just the beginning for a massive year for Cochrane and her compatriots. Later this summer, Scotland will compete in the EuroHockey Championships in the Netherlands while in less than 10 months, they will travel to the Gold Coast for the 2018 Commonwealth Games with a realistic chance of making a real mark. “This summer is going to be huge for us so it’s only once that’s over that we’ll turn our attention to the Commonwealth Games,” she says. “It’s so exciting to be part of the team while this is all coming up,” she says. “This is why we train – to play in these tournaments. The next year is like a dream year for us and I’m so excited to see how we can do.”