While they may not always get the spotlight, Niagara County boasts a few of the top field hockey programs in not only Western New York, but the northeastern United States.
With the likes of Royalton-Hartland, Barker and Wilson all competing in the Niagara-Orleans league race, here’s a preview on this year’s crop of field hockey teams and some players to watch this season:
The Raiders will be one of the biggest teams to watch out for, having received votes in MAX Field Hockey’s 2019 Preseason Northeast Region Top 20 Rankings. Barker finished the 2018 season with a 17-4 record and was tops in the N-O with an 11-1 standing. The Raiders would go on to win the Section VI Class C final and made a run all the way to the state’s semifinal round. Continuity will be key with this team, which returns all but one player from last year’s roster.
For head coach Jeffrey Costello, his blue chip star will be senior attack Katrina Clare. The co-team captain was the co-leader in goals scored in both the N-O and Section VI last season, netting a total of 30. The 2018 N-O League Player of the Year will be playing her fifth varsity season this fall, in hopes of propelling herself to the collegiate level next season.
Barker will return co-captain Ciara Gregoire as well. The senior attack was a playmaker last season and should improve on already solid production (6 goals, 6 assists). The team’s second leading scorer, Rachel Hurtgam, will be back in the mix too after a strong performance in ‘18 (12 goals, 3 assists).
The team should also see an offensive boost with the return of Serena Harris, who spent the last two years running cross country after playing field hockey from 2014-16. Natalie Bruning (7 goals, 9 assists), Lena Fazzolari (7 goals, 3 assists), Emily Wagner (8 goals, 2 assists) and Madison Gancasz (2 goals, 4 assists) are all back in the midfield after solid showings last season and Costello expects a lot from defensive aces Ella Fox and Ashlin Cole.
Megan Hotaling and Courtney Hillman will serve as the team’s goalkeeping tandem, after playing the roles of understudies behind Paige Sandolfini last season.
Last season was a strong one for the Rams as well, finishing with a 15-3 record overall. With two of the three team losses coming to Barker, Roy-Hart will be looking for revenge in their matchups with the Raiders this fall.
Head coach Colleen Albee will bring back her own superstar player, with Samantha Choate back for another season. The fifth-year varsity member is a two-time team captain for the Rams and was a playmaker last season at center mid (6 goals, 8 assists).
“She has a keen sense of the field and knows the game,” Albee said. “She is able to move the ball up the field to her teammates, but also get herself in scoring positions. Sam is tough and aggressive, she is quick and has good stick skills.”
Other players to watch include senior Abby Ander and junior Miah Glena. Both captains this season, they will run the midfield with Choate and should lead the offense to scoring opportunities. Sophomores Justine Laverty and Claire Halstead, junior Rebecca Berner and senior Sophia DiCenso will set up the defense in front of a new goaltender.
The key will be the play of whomever steps as the team’s goalie, as they will be replacing five-year starter Jamie Bower. The team will look to reboot after graduating nine players, including Ashley Hill (11 goals, 10 assists). The Rams will also replace Jenna Heiser, RayLynn Chraston and Alexis Lovewell, who are continuing their field hockey careers at the collegiate level.
With only 11 girls on the roster (3 seniors, 6 juniors, 1 sophomore,1 freshman) head coach Jamie Lepsch is embracing the challenge of coaching up a smaller group. A key player this year will include senior Emilee Muoio, who will play midfield. According to Lepsch, she has a strong hit, cuts to the ball and has an eye for the entire field.
Junior Anna Meyers is back after a solid 2018 (4 goals, 1 assist). She plays forward for the Lakemen and is considered a great leader who communicates well with her teammates on the field. Senior Sierra Shepherd is back at goalie as well after posting 111 saves last fall.
Junior Olivia Mocarski plays midfield and will look to help move the ball down field as well as she did a season ago (3 goals, 4 assists). She is also helping the team out on the defensive end and Lepsch already feels that she is transitioning into that roll rather quickly.
TLakemen hope to bring some W’s to a newly-turfed facility. Wilson will also look to replace the team’s top-two leading scorers from 2018 in Hannah Day (7 goals, 2 assists) and Ivy Montgomery (6 goals).
Our lone Erie County Interscholastic Conference member is very fortunate to have 12 returning players following a trip to the Class B quarterfinals last season. The Spartan returners includes 10 seniors: Kiersten Balko, Nicole Bennett, Julia Beutel, Abby Blount, Lindsey Blount, Molly Dineen, Maddie Floreano, Emma Geraci, Faith Lunn, Lia Pusateri, Gabby Sirica and Makenzie Weber.
Head coach Megan Kehoe will look to Lunn and the younger of the two Blounts, Lindsey, to run the show offensively. Lunn will be a captain this year and she has been coined the “heart of the offense.” She has been praised for her exceptional game sense, stick skills and general field hockey ability.
Blount enters her sophomore season having been billed as a highly-talented player with goal-scoring potential and an intrinsic competitiveness driving her to constantly improve.
The other major pieces of the offense will be with a returning captain in Pusateri, Bennett, Weber and Lindsey’s older sister, Abby. They should see some more help on the ‘O’ from the midfield play of Dineen and Floreano.
On the defensive side, Beutel will be guiding the unit along and will be central to clearing the zone for the team. She will be complemented by pieces like Geraci and Sirica as well, who is making a transition over from midfield to defense. Most importantly though, the defense should be buoyed by Balko in the goal, as she enters her fourth straight season as Starpoint’s goaltender.
The Spartans also have a strong mix of newcomers, bringing a class of seven juniors on to the roster. Natalie O’Brien and Rylee Stefanski should add to the offensive attack, Morgan Kramer and Katie Urchik will be added weapons in the defensive backfield, and players like Katherine McIntosh, Taylor Olson and Anna Stein could be used as more of chess pieces with no specific position on either ends of the field.
Kehoe is looking forward to how 2019 unfolds and she has set a focus outlook for this year’s squad.
“Our focus is on attitude. We cannot control every moment of our lives, the things that will happen to us or the way the ball will bounce,” she said. “But what we can control is how we react. Our attitude is our destiny and this season, we are focused on meeting every challenge with an attitude of positivity, persistence and strength.
The Panthers are bringing a young group into 2019, being led by five seniors and three juniors. Head coach Mary Haylett will be trying to build up the rest of the roster behind them, coaching a group consisting of players who are just getting their first taste in the sport of field hockey.
Senior Elizabeth Klumpp, junior Marah Sheehan and junior Kaylee Christy will be Newfane’s key players on the offensive end of the field, along with senior Madison Klumpp and junior Autumn Christy being key players at midfield.
Defensively, Haylett expects things to be handled by seniors Sarah Nola and Alex Donovan. The Panthers should be able to rely on a steady presence on the back end of the ‘D’ too, with Ryleigh McCoy returning for her senior season.
For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos.