JAFFREY — At this time last year, the Conant High field hockey team didn’t have much it could aspire to.
Coming off back-to-back winless seasons, all the Orioles could hope for was to finally put a positive number back in the win column.
But they went far and beyond that goal in 2018, not only winning their first game in three years, but finishing 5-9 to earn their first postseason berth in five years.
This year’s Conant team begins the new season Wednesday, with a 4 p.m. home game against Bishop Brady, the team that knocked the Orioles out of the playoffs in 2018.
And this year, the bar has been set a little higher.
“Just to continue that momentum,” said Conant Coach Jackie Brown, last year’s Division III Coach of the Year. “Obviously, we know that we can make playoffs, we know what it feels like, so I’m hoping that we do see ourselves in playoffs again. I’d like to see a stronger record; yeah, winning five games was great, but it’d be nice to get a couple more.”
The road back to postseason contention won’t be easy, following some big graduations on the defense. The Orioles lost four seniors, including All-Division III first team defender and captain Mariah Chamberlain and all-division second-team goalie S.J. Barney.
A young squad returns to the Conant field, with just one senior in forward/midfielder and captain Alexis Gallagher. However, some of the Orioles’ four juniors, such as all-division second team forward Elizabeth Gonyea and midfielder Abby Wheeler, have stepped up to take a bigger leadership role.
“I feel like I have to be more of a role model than before,” Gallagher said. “Before I could just let the other seniors do it, but now I have to step up.”
Filling the voids left by Chamberlain and Barney on defense is expected to be a tough task.
Replacing Barney in the cage will be one of two sophomores: Tessa Spingola or Sara Anderson. Two junior defenders, Erin Weidner and Tiffany Marrotte, are expected to anchor the defense once led by Chamberlain.
“They are showing that they can be leaders on the defense, which is nice,” Brown said of her juniors. “I’m kind of giving them the confidence and motivating them to be those leaders now, because they were so used to Mariah taking over and doing it all.”
On the offensive end, Conant returns a young core with a good amount of experience. In addition to Gonyea and Wheeler, sophomore forward Teagan Kirby takes the field again after leading the Orioles with 17 goals as a freshman.
“I’m excited. My offense and midfield are pretty strong,” Brown said. “I’m not worried about them, really, I’m just looking forward to their improvement. I think it’s going to be great.”
Gonyea has seen what the final destination for this program is like, having played the past two winters on the Conant girls’ basketball team, a perennial title contender that won a state championship in Gonyea’s freshman year.
But for the field hockey team to go from no wins to the biggest wins, Gonyea said the Orioles need to take things one step at a time and establish themselves within the community.
“Obviously, basketball is big here, it’s just known,” Gonyea said. “With field hockey, each game is like a new opportunity to get more support and put ourselves out there for people.”