By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
A couple years ago the Egg Harbor Township field hockey team was right around the .500 mark, finishing the 2018 season with a 10-8 record. But against the best competition — such as Ocean City, West Deptford and Cherokee — the Eagles were getting their doors blown off. Rebecca Macchia, a freshman goalie that season, was getting beat up in the cage by some of South Jersey’s best teams.
Ocean City, a perennial state power, outscored the Eagles 13-0 in two Cape-Atlantic League matchups, West Deptford handed EHT an 8-0 loss in an non-conference game, and in the opening round of the state playoffs Cherokee blasted the Eagles 9-0.
The Eagles simply weren’t ready to compete with the best teams in South Jersey.
But a lot can change in just a few short seasons in high school sports. This year, EHT posted a 17-4 record that included a huge overtime win over Ocean City that highlighted an 11-game winning streak to start the season, and only one of the Eagles’ losses was by more than two goals. The Eagles earned the No. 3 seed in the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs but were upset by 14th-seeded Washington Township, 1-0. So, there is still a long way to go until EHT can start competing for sectional titles, but the Eagles certainly are on a big-time upward swing.
“My freshman year we would get blown out and I’d be getting demolished, so I think coming from that to now having a winning team — and being on every type of team in between — kind of makes you learn a lot,” Macchia said prior to the playoffs. “You learn how to handle a lot of situations, which is why I felt so prepared for this season. I’ve had so many different kinds of experiences.”
So, how does a coach turn a team into a program?
“We had some shifts and changes at the different coaching levels. I’ve had Carly (Smith) for several years in a row now at the freshman level, and everything you are teaching and building flows from one team to the next. She’s doing the same things and Lara (Subbotin) is adding to those basics, and we’ve had a lot of kids who are making that transition from freshman to JV, finding success there, and then playing two years of varsity,” said head coach Kristi Troster, who took over the program six years ago after a stint coaching at the college level. “We have a lot more kids who are going through that complete process now and I think that’s why we have more balance. We have kids who are building their skills, finding success and discovering their love for the game along the way, where in years past lacrosse might have been their main sport and they’d just play field hockey to stay in shape. They are really doing skill building while they are here, and that’s been a big part of our success.
“A lot of this group of seniors, all of them except for the goalie played freshman year together. So they got that experience playing as a unit. A lot of them got time on the varsity as sophomores, then became starters as juniors and seniors.”
Troster said she got some sage advice years ago from Michelle Andre, current head coach at Rowan University who has built the Profs into a Top 10 team in NCAA Division III. Troster and Andre coached together at Stockton University.
“I coached with the head coach at Rowan and they are ranked sixth in the nation in Division III and she always told me you live and die by your junior class. How ready are they to contribute? This group (of seniors), as sophomores, the group that was above them was kind of at the same level. So I knew this group wasn’t necessarily going to be ready as sophomores, but they were going to be very good as juniors and seniors. This year’s junior class is strong and that’s always helpful. We have a strong junior and sophomore class to build with these seniors, and that’s been a perfect combination,” Troster said. “We have several starting seniors and probably more juniors in the starting lineup than any other class, and a lot of those girls play club field hockey. A lot of the younger girls who are starting this year play club in the offseason and that’s been another key piece and something I’ve been pushing for since I got here. We’re not going to be at the level of certain other teams if you just play the season and the summer preseason. Having a field hockey stick in your hand at other times of the year is very important.”
EHT’s leading scorers — sophomore Jenna Gray and juniors Kara Wilson and Julia Zappile, all of whom had 12 goals this season — all return next year and Troster will only have to replace a handful of positions in the starting lineup, so the Eagles are set up nicely for 2022. But the reason they are might be less about talent and more about the foundation this year’s senior class has laid with their work ethic and the ability to accept whatever role they were asked to play. Troster has 10 seniors — Jessie Alkins, Kelli Bradeis, Paige Chardyczak, Dakota Dix, Emily Gargan, Addison Jacobs, Macchia, Emma Margiel, Ella Meisenhelter and Kierstyn Zinckgraf. Not all of them were starters and some didn’t play many minutes, but all brought a great attitude and work ethic to the field every day.
“This is a really good group of personalities. I call them my ‘magical unicorns’ because we have a lot of kids who, I swear, should be living in the 1970s. They have a good vibe. We have the real serious people, and the people who are laid back who help kind of wind them down. It creates a good balance,” Troster said. “Everybody knows and understand their role, and they’ve accepted that and embraced that, and that really means a lot for your team morale and how everything functions. I have kids who know there are games when they might not play. Jesse went in during overtime against Ocean City and that was the first time she went in all game; she helps lead one of the breakaway plays to score the winning goal. It’s one of those things that when they are called upon they go with the flow.
“I have some seniors who are realistic with themselves, and some seniors who just because they don’t have a starting role or don’t get as much playing time as others, they know they are part of a very good team and program,” she added. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a good field hockey player or can’t play at the next level. It has different connotations now that we are in it to win it with all the best teams in the CAL. We’re not at the level of an Eastern yet, but it’s part of the process to try to build toward something like that. Those kids play together from the time they are little.”
“I think we have a lot of great seniors, and a lot of them work really hard and are very dedicated. We’ve all been really dedicated to this program since we’ve been freshmen,” Macchia said. “We have a lot of talent, pride and team spirit, and we work together really well. A lot of our team gets along really well, and skills-wise we’ve all improved a lot. There are girls who play club and a lot of us put in work outside of the season so we’re better during the season. When I was a freshman, there weren’t as many people putting the work in outside of the season.”
“I think since we’ve been freshmen we’ve all grown together, we’ve learned how to play together and how to use each other well on the field. Now we know how to make things work. It has taken a lot of hard work and determination. Every girl on this team, when we want something, we work for it,” Meisenhelter said. “It feels great (to have a season like this). There’s no way to describe the feeling of getting to this point. It’s a great way to end our careers and I’m so proud of everybody.”
“It’s been our team chemistry and we’ve had a lot of good underclassmen come up the past couple of years. Field hockey is becoming a bigger sport (in EHT) and our feeder program is getting better, so everybody coming up is more talented. We’ve worked the last four years to try to make this a program and not just a team,” Jacobs added. “We’ve learned how to play better with each other. We have a lot of chemistry this year and we’ve learned how to communicate better. We all know where we have to go. I know where I need to be and everyone else knows where they need to be.”
The highlight to this season certainly will be beating Ocean City. The Eagles won, 3-2, in overtime in mid-September, proving that EHT was a program to be reckoned with inside the Cape-Atlantic League. In the past three seasons, EHT has gone 33-6 in league games.
“It was a really great feeling to beat Ocean City. That was one of the best things in my life, honestly. Beating them, that was a perfect part of this season,” Gargan said. “It’s so nice to win so many games because we’ve put in so much work and now it’s finally paying off now that we are seniors.”
“I think those kinds of wins make them more excited to continue with the sport. When we’re finding success we keep more kids. Right now, volleyball is a new fall sport here and we’ve lost some kids to that — as a lot of field hockey programs have throughout the state. But I think having success makes it easier to make that choice to continue with field hockey. And we started a summer camp here about five years ago, so seeing the young kids and getting to work with them before they come here and building some of those relationships is important,” Troster said. “A couple of kids kind of fell in love with the game freshman year and started playing club. We have five or six kids who are doing that all the time now, where as when I first started here we had maybe one kid like that. But that makes you significantly higher level. Ocean City, almost all those kids play club, and they play club at the same place. Next year there is a new program starting down in Middle Township and we’ll have about a dozen kids playing club, and that does make a huge difference.”
Troster said she believes this program can build a solid foundation based on the past couple of seasons, and the girls who have helped make EHT field hockey more than just a sport to play to stay in shape for another.
“I think we have the potential (to keep this going). We have a couple of big spots to fill but we have a goalie coming in who transferred over from street hockey (sophomore Semra Alabarda), so she has the instincts and the potential,” Troster said. “Filling that goalie position will be a big deal because (Macchia) has been a four-year starter and has played at a high level. But (Alabarta) is excited to jump in there and get the training for it. And we have some young kids who are starting to step up and they can fill the defensive positions that will be vacated.”
For this year’s seniors the season ended with a disappointing loss in the state playoffs, but they’ll be able to leave with the satisfaction of knowing they were instrumental in getting this program to a highly competitive level.
“This is the best season I could have asked for as a senior,” Macchia said. “My freshman year, we lost a bunch of games but now we’re really good compared to then. The improvement has been really satisfying to see. And the success and growth I’ve seen from this team, you couldn’t ask for a better way to end your high school career.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
State of the Program: EHT field hockey building into championship contender
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN