CHESHIRE — As a nine-time state champion that played for a 10th title last season, Cheshire will never be off anyone’s field hockey radar.
But if there was ever a year to overlook Cheshire, it would be 2019.
The Rams enter the season minus 17 seniors off last year’s historic squad, which compiled Cheshire’s first perfect regular season in 28 years, allowed just four goals and reached the Southern Connecticut Conference and Class L title games.
“We have such a good league; to stay undefeated was such a huge feat,” Cheshire coach Eileen Wildermann said. “The SCC championship was an amazing game. [Guilford] just had a better game plan that day. That’s a game we could have won, but Guilford just came into the game better prepared than us.
“Staples? We were just outmatched,” she said of the Class L final. “The girls executed like they should have. It’s just that team is far more skilled than we were.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love winning,” Wildermann added. “But I also feel you should play high school sports for the fun of it, and that senior class was the epitome of enjoying their four years. I was happier about that than anything.”
It was a class that won 64 games over four seasons. Among those seniors was goalie Lexie Hemstock, who posted a program-record 19 shutouts as Cheshire went 21-2 last fall. She’s now playing at Western New England.
Also off to college are captains Annie Eddy (Colby) and Mikayla Crowley (Boston University), as well as Meaghan Hogan (9 goals) and four other starters.
Just as daunting? Cheshire plays in the SCC, which is stacked once again.
Defending champion Guilford, which beat Cheshire 3-1 in last year’s final, returns nearly all its starters. Hand and Branford are loaded with experience. Amity boasts the conference’s top player (Tess Csejka) and two All-State caliber goalies.
Cheshire returns just three starters.
“It’s a completely new team,” Wildermann said. “We lost a lot of experience. There will be some hiccups in the beginning of the year, but this is going to be a really exciting team. I think they are going to grow a lot during the season.
“The fun part of this is I get to put together an entire new lineup. And the sky is the limit for them. The kids worked really hard during the summer. Now to see what they can do. That’s one of the best parts of coaching.
“Cheshire is never going to be an underdog ever,” Wildermann added. “We are raw and I think people are definitely not thinking there is as much of a chance for us in the SCC. There are some other teams who are favored, but you can never count out a Cheshire team.”
The Rams won three straight SCC titles from 2011-13 and its ninth state title in 2011. Who is Wildermann expecting to continue that Cheshire tradition?
This year’s squad starts with senior Olivia Salamone, one of those three returning starters. An All-SCC and All-RJ performer last season, Salamone scored 12 goals and tallied 15 assists from her midfield spot as a junior.
Wildermann called her a “true field hockey player who just loves the game. She’s the best field-hockey player we have all around. She has the most skill.”
Another senior, Megan Daly, was another rare junior starter last season. She was named a captain along with Kiley Jackson this season. Daly, said Wildermann, is a “quiet leader” who showed plenty of grit last season.
Jackson is a bit more vocal, both on the scoresheet and on the field. Though she wasn’t a starter, Jackson led the Rams in scoring with 15 goals. She just seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
That hasn’t changed. Jackson had five goals in Cheshire’s first scrimmage last week.
The third returning starter is defenseman Taylor Warburton. She was part of that four-goals-against defense that carried the Rams to the Class L final. She will be the anchor of the 2019 backline with juniors Danielle Floyd and Raegan Bailey.
Now comes the biggest question: Who replaces Hemstock?
Answer: senior Ava Pulisciano. The daughter of former Cheshire lacrosse coach Rich Pulisciano “will be challenged more, because we are such a young team,” Wildermann said.
Offensively, sophomore Lauren Houle will be inserted into the starting lineup after scoring three varsity goals as a freshman.
Despite the graduation losses, the Rams won’t shy away from the top teams in the state. Along with that rugged SCC slate, including two games with Hand, Cheshire has non-conference games lined up with New Canaan, Norwalk and Simsbury.
“We do try to load up our schedule with tough teams because you aren’t going to get any better playing weaker teams,” Wildermann said.Southington
The Blue Knights are expected to be better than last year’s 7-9 record and boast one of the best players in the Record-Journal’s coverage area. But will All-State attacker Jenna Sheehan be enough to make Southington more than just competitive in the Central Connected Conference?
“The CCC is always tough and our out-of-conference games got a little harder too,” said Southington coach Erin Luddy, who enters her 11th season. “We are definitely trying to better ourselves by playing harder competition. So the expectation is that we will have a better record than last season.”
Last year, as the 17th seed in Class L, Southington lost 2-1 to Fairfield-Warde in a play-in game. Two years ago, the Blue Knights won their final seven regular-season games to reach the postseason.
Southington always seems to get better as the season progresses. Luddy, however, expects this year’s squad to be above .500 all season.
The Blue Knights have experience. They return 14 seniors, led by Sheehan, who tallied 13 goals and 14 assists as a junior in making the All-State and All-RJ teams. Sheehan scored 14 varsity goals as a sophomore to make All-State Second Team.
“She picked up the game as a freshman and just fell in love with it,” Luddy said. “It was something she could be good at and worked hard to get there. She did a lot of offseason stuff.
“She has great ball control and she can see the field very well, see scoring opportunities not just for herself but others.”
Those “others” include All-CCC and All-RJ midfielder Emma Doran. The senior will patrol the middle and be counted on to to score along with fellow upperclassman Autumn Swain.
Juniors Nicki Grenado and Anna McGrail (midfield) will also both have opportunities to score.
Defensively, the Blue Knights have a pair of seniors returning. Victoria Godlewski can score also from her center back spot, while Mackenzie Brown also will anchor a defense in front of a pair of girls vying for starting minutes in goal.
When ask who will be starting in net, Luddy chuckled. “I’m not sure yet. That’s a good question.”
Senior Kate Przybylski started games as a junior, while this year’s newcomer to varsity is junior Abby Delgado.
“In the past, we’ve definitely been more of a defensive team,” Luddy said. “But with Jenna and others, I think we can be a bit more of a transitional and attacking team.
“There are at least eight (players) who have been with me since they were sophomores, so they’ve seen playing time, if not started last year. So I think this will be a good year for them. The chemistry is there because they’ve played together for a while. They are looking forward to having a good season.”Sheehan
It’s all about fresh starts at Sheehan. Not only has first-year head coach Katie Gill returned to her alma mater, but in an effort to get back to the playoffs, she has the Titans getting back to basics.
Gill, who graduated from Sheehan in 2012 after a decorated four seasons with the Titans, has just three returning starters after the graduation of 12 players, six of whom started.
One of the returning starters is senior Kaylee Drobish, a player Gill will count on in 2019.
“She’s been incredible since Day 1. She’s really stepped up as far as helping the new girls with the sport,” Gill said. “She’s been a great example as far as how drills should be done. She just has a great positive attitude about everything. I’m looking forward to seeing what she can do on the field this year.”
Speaking of drills, the Titans aren’t just hitting the ball around in practice or running around the track to get in shape. Gill has installed more “game situation” drills that promote “built-in conditioning.” The hope is the Titans will get both their bodies and game into shape simultaneously.
The Titans missed the playoffs last year, going 5-9-1. Losing isn’t something Gills was accustomed to at Sheehan or during her four seasons at Springfield College.
“The girls are doing the little things right and those little things are going to make a difference in close games,” Gill said. “We want to make sure we are doing those little things right.”
Sheehan won’t have many easy games as a member of the SCC. Certainly, beating rival Lyman Hall is always key to a successful season.
The Titans and Trojans play twice again this season. The first match is Sept. 26 at Lyman Hall, where Gill ironically teaches. Round 2 is at Sheehan in a “Veteran’s Day” game the night of Oct. 24.
While Drobish will spearhead the offense, junior Jessica Davies is the backbone of the defense. Gill expects Davies and fellow junior Dempsey Lajoie to work in tandem to “stop the ball” before it finds the Sheehan zone.
Adding to the offense are a pair of underclassmen. Junior Mallory Crispens has “great vison” while sophomore Sydney Rossacci’s speed and stick skills will be a major asset.Lyman Hall
At Lyman Hall, it’s all about creating more “chaos,” and it just may translate into more success.
The Trojans were 5-10-1 year ago, which has head coach Stephanie Lavado-Berghorn switching things up this season. Instead of controlling the ball, the Trojans will look to attack more.
“We lost a lot of games by one goal last year, so we are putting a lot of emphasis on offense this year,” Lavado-Berghorn said. “We are taking a little different approach than we have.
“In the past, we wanted to maintain the ball in the middle of the field and take advantage of our shots. But now our plan is put as many shots on goal as possible and hope they go in. Really put pressure on the other team’s defense.”
Putting shots on goal will be the responsibility of forwards Kyra Benzing-Plourde and Michaela Avallone, the senior captains, and junior Grace Chappell, who scored 12 JV goals last season.
If their shots don’t find the back of the cage, look for Kaitlin Nolan, Piper Killin and Inhwa Ferretti to be buzzing for rebounds.
“I think my midfielders and forwards are really fluid with each other,” Lavado-Berghorn said. “I really think we can create a little more chaos up front.
“Every year we are really hoping to be .500,” Lavado-Berghorn added. “Skill-set wise, we have the talent to do that.”
Defensively, LH has three girls who could find time in net: seniors Mattie Coore and Kristin Parker along with sophomore Emily Chase.
Another player to watch is junior midfielder Ashleen Keating, who possesses strong stick-handling skills born of her background in ice hockey.
Like Sheehan, a win on Sept. 26 or Oct. 24 is always a major goal.
“I’m excited about the rivalry,” Lavado-Berghorn said. “It’s like an extra Senior Night. In those games, sometimes skill doesn’t come into play as much as emotion. It’s great for the sport and town.”