By Bob York –
Even though the Big Green’s weapon of choice is a stick, you still have to love its batting average. In 24 years of existence, the Deerfield Academy field hockey program has earned a berth in tournament play following 20 of those seasons for a hefty .833 clip. This fall, the team used one of its best starts in school annals–six wins and a tie –to get a leg up on the competition and a foot in the playoff door.
The fast start proved a necessity for the Big Green, as it dipped to 4-4-1 down the home stretch, “and we ended up needing to get into playoff mode one game earlier than we normally would have to ensure we made the tournament,” said Deerfield coach Kristen Veiga.
In layman’s terms, what that means is that Veiga’s charges found themselves in a must-win situation heading into their regular-season finale against archrival Choate. It was either beat the Boars or forget the playoffs. So, they beat the Boars.
In what Veiga would later describe as “one of our two very best games of the season,” Deerfield qualified for a tourney berth with a final regular-season showing of 10-4-2 by knocking off Choate, 2-1, as co-captain Maggie Shilling (14) scored both goals.
Unfortunately from the Big Green’s standpoint, the tournament committee tagged it with the sixth seed in the eight-team field and that meant a first-round showdown against third-ranked Greenwich Academy for the second straight year. And, for the second straight year, the Gators ended Deerfield’s title hopes. Last year, Deerfield was ousted, 7-0. This year, the final score was 5-0.
“The discouraging thing about this year’s loss to Greenwich was that we simply got outplayed,” said Veiga. “We played them just 10 days prior to that tournament game and only lost to them 2-1. It was the best we’ve ever played them and the closest we’ve ever come to beating them. So, losing to Greenwich a little more than a week later by a 5-0 score was certainly discouraging from our standpoint.”
Knowing the schedule as well as Veiga does, the veteran mentor was quite sure her team would need to get off to a fast start in order to qualify for the tournament –and she was right. Of the seven other teams to earn tourney invites, six appeared on Deerfield’s schedule, with five of them showing up between Oct. 11 and Nov. 3.
It must be said that the Big Green more than held its own against its six tourney counterparts during their regular-season meetings, as Deerfield went 1-4-1 against the best the New England area had to offer this season. During those half-dozen encounters the Big Green stood tall, as its opponents could muster only a slim 11-8 scoring advantage. During the early stages of the season, the Big Green battled Hotchkiss, which would eventually land the second seed, to a 1-1 tie.
“We hadn’t beaten or even tied Hotchkiss in the past eight years,” said Veiga, of a program that, up until 2012, had captured 10 consecutive New England crowns. “It was certainly a red-letter day for the Deerfield Academy field hockey program.”
Then, during a three-week stretch from mid October until early November, Deerfield defeated number-seven seed Taft, 3-1, while losing to fourth-seeded Westminster, 3-1, fifth-ranked Andover, 3-2, eighth-seed Loomis, 1-0, plus the 2-1 setback to third-ranked Greenwich.
“Tying Hotchkiss was a huge confidence builder for us,” said co-captain Julia Hamilton (14), who described her score as “the biggest goal of my career,” after registering Deerfield’s lone goal of the game. “Playing Hotchkiss to a 1-1 tie showed us early on in the season that we could compete against the best teams in the league as well as the best teams in New England.”
Despite the fact that Hamilton, who was the recipient of this year’s Deerfield Field Hockey Cup as the team’s MVP, is situated on defense, her name appears on the score sheets quite frequently. In fact, she finished tied for second in team scoring this fall with eight points on four goals and four assists. Last year, she collected five goals and four assists for nine points. Her point totals are no fluke, however, “because I set up the corner shots,” she explained.
With a defenseman finishing tied for second on the stat sheets, one can pretty much assume this season’s offense didn’t exactly blow anybody away. And that assumption would be correct. Through its 16-game regular-season schedule, the Big Green scored only 38 goals for an average of just 2.37 goals per game.
Forward Lucy Lytle (15), who, along with midfielder Molly Murphy (15) earned berths on the Western New England Prep School Field Hockey Association All-Star Team, led the Big Green in scoring with 16 points on 13 goals and three assists. It marked the second straight season that Lytle, who will serve as co-captain next year along with Murphy, has been a heavy lifter in the scoring department. She finished second in team scoring as a sophomore with a 16-point effort on 11 goals and five assists. Even during her freshman year, Lytle exhibited an ability to score by registering three goals and two assists for five points. Combined, Lytle will head into her senior season having chalked up 37 points on 27 goals and 10 assists.
Shilling tied Hamilton for second place on the stat sheets with eight points via six goals and two assists, while Nina McGowan (16) produced six goals and one assist for seven points. Caroline Ashford (14), meanwhile, finished with six points as she scored four goals and set up two others. One player whom Veiga wasn’t able to count on this season was midfielder Kate Swindell (14) who missed most of the season due to a back injury.
For the second straight season, Deerfield’s Department of Defense was in the capable hands of Katherine Heaney (16). The Big Green goaltender allowed just 17 goals through 16 games for a 1.06 goals against average and five shutouts. Combined with an equally stingy performance during her freshman season, Heaney has given up just 30 goals in 29 games for a 1.03 average. She has logged 10 shutouts and given up only one goal in seven games–and she will be around for two more years.
“Despite being a young team, this was a very talented team,” said Veiga of a squad that will lose just five players to graduation, while six of this year’s juniors, seven sophomores and three freshmen will return. In fact, the Big Green skipper noted a mental component might have been as important to the team’s success this season as was its physical talents when she acknowledged, “when the kids came to play, we did pretty well for ourselves.”