By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When Nya Gilchrist moved to Ocean City in seventh grade, she wasn’t even really into sports and had never even held a field hockey stick in her hands. Just six short years later, she may have the opportunity to play field hockey at the collegiate level after recently finishing off an outstanding Ocean City High career that not only included another sectional championship for the Red Raiders, but also saw Gilchrist get named as the school’s homecoming queen.
“I wasn’t really into sports when I moved from Raleigh, North Carolina, to here. When I moved here, the field hockey team was going through playoffs, and I was like, ‘oh, I want to play this sport,’” said Gilchrist, who worked her way up from junior varsity as a sophomore to a captain’s role her senior year. “It’s really different there as opposed to here and the transition was really hard. But it’s OK now because I’m involved in a lot of things and I feel like I have a positive outlook on my future, so I’m very happy that I made the move.”
With Gilchrist in the starting lineup the past two years the Red Raiders have begun to get back to the lofty standards they’ve had for decades. Kelsey Mitchell, a former star at Eastern High and the University of Iowa, took over the program four years ago and after a pedestrian 14-8 record (by Ocean City standards) her first year, the Red Raiders have started winning championships again. In the past three seasons, Ocean City has gone 47-12-1 and won two sectional championships and three straight Cape-Atlantic League conference titles. A lot of that has to do with players such as Gilchrist, who come up through the program, bide their time and when they get the chance to start on varsity they are ready for the opportunity.
“She had a great season last year, kind of a breakout year as a forward. She put a lot of time in during the offseason (before last year), she joined some club stuff and was able to play more year-round, and I think that really improved her game and her skill set,” Mitchell said of one of her star playmakers. “Her hustle is second-to-none. She’s relentless on the ball, tackling back, and her speed really helps set her apart from the defenders she’s going up against. She’s super athletic. She had a lot of untapped potential. Her skills were really raw freshman year and she was just getting acclimated to field hockey, but once she made that commitment to pursue it in the offseason, that’s when we saw a lot of improvement.”
Ocean City went 12-2 this season, its only losses coming to state powers Haddonfield and Shore Regional. Gilchrist got off to a hot start, scoring seven goals in the first four games, and she finished with 12 goals and four assists. Her best tally came in October with 19 seconds left against Middle Township, and it helped the Red Raiders score a 1-0 victory.
Even now, Gilchrist says she is surprised at how far she has come since moving to New Jersey to live with her father.
“(Learning the game) was very hard because Ocean City field hockey is a tradition and everyone takes it seriously. I was behind (when I started) but I adjusted very quickly. I just believed that I had a lot of athleticism and I felt like that was my advantage. I’ve been known for my speed and I’ve been able to incorporate that into field hockey, so I guess athleticism was my gateway to catch up to the other girls, in a way,” she said. “I’m in total shock at how much I’ve grown, both on and off the field. The biggest impact has been the group of people I share the sport with. Having teammates who have the same interests and work just as hard as you made me feel like I could do it, too, and that’s why I push myself so much.”
Gilchrist credits Mitchell and the coaching staff with helping her develop into the leader she is today.
“Coach Mitchell knows how to work well with you individually, and she nurtures you and helps you when you need it. She helps me get out of my own head a lot. Learning from her is awesome because she has (the pedigree) from Eastern and then Iowa in college, so she knows the different levels of play and she knows everyone’s potential,” Gilchrist said. “I view my role as captain to keep everyone motivated and get everyone hyped up, and also people can come to me about anything. Being a captain means people can come to me when they are having issues with field hockey, or anything, really. And that feels good to know I’m in a position where I can help people. It’s crazy, because I was never expecting to be a captain of any type of sports team, and it just happened. It’s such an honor, knowing what Ocean City field hockey is, and being a captain is big for me.”
With the hockey season over, Gilchrist can now concentrate in earnest on finding the right fit for college, and she said she’d love to continue her playing career at the next level if the opportunity presents itself.
“She’s awesome, just a great kid overall. She’s talkative and friendly. I love having her on the team. Nya and Chelsea Stack were involved (with homecoming). They had to do a video (as part of the selection process) and instead of competing against each other, they did the video together, which I thought was pretty neat,” Mitchell said. “Playing in college is something that’d definitely attainable for her, we just have to figure out where.”
“I do want to play at the next level. I did get a little behind in the recruiting process, but it’s been going pretty well. I’m looking at a few schools and plan to commit in the coming months,” Gilchrist said. “I want to study early education. I have two little sisters, Kaelyn (4 years old) and Eva (5), and during quarantine I had to help them learn things. Being involved with them and their learning has inspired me to become a teacher and teach little kids. That’s what I love to do.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays