by Andrew Garda
If you spend enough time around Montclair High School field hockey coach Mary Pat Mercuro, you’ll find out she’s a big “Game of Thrones” fan. Her favorite character is Jon Snow, but unlike the erstwhile King of the North, she knows something.
Coaching field hockey for 23 seasons, she’d have to.
One thing she knows for sure is that her 2017 squad has what it takes to be a winner, despite being a young team.
“We lost a lot of seniors last year,” Mercuro says. “So we’re pretty young in terms of — maybe not number-wise [with] seniors — but young pretty much… in players who are playing main roles.”
Mercuro isn’t worried, though, as she feels that one of the strengths of the MHS program is that players are developed all four years.
“We have a strong program and are one of the few teams around which actually have freshman programs,” she says.
Players start at that freshman level, and it’s rare that one is brought up to the varsity team full time. They mostly remain with the freshman team, then move up to a role on the junior varsity.
By the time they are juniors and seniors, they’re experienced and ready to play at a higher level. Mercuro says she looks for athletes who know what they’re doing and why by the time they make the varsity team.
Now she’ll have a chance to see if it pays off, as her seniors have to step up.
“I always look to my senior captains,” she says, mentioning defender Jen Heath and left wing Missy Wrede.
Heath will be the foundation of the defensive line and play center backfield as well as some right side midfielder.
Wrede will lead the offense, building off her 19-goal 2016 season.
“What we’re trying to emphasize is intensity,” Wrede said. “We both want to win a sectional title this year, and I think we have the skills. I just think everyone needs to turn up the intensity and work really hard. Because your skills can improve and everything, but if you don’t have the drive, then it’s never going to work.”
“We are a young team,” Heath added. “So we’re also trying to push confidence. Everyone [who is here now] deserves to be on the varsity team. They all have the skills for it, but I think sometimes we all lack a little bit of confidence. I know I do at times. And it’s great to be with a group of girls who are encouraging you. That’s what is going to get us through the season.”
Both captains say they are very aware that varsity sets the tone for the whole program. The freshman and junior varsity squads scrimmage varsity and practice on the same fields. How the older girls act and prepare trickles down to the lower levels.
If they can spread the intensity and work ethic down to the lower levels, then players who eventually join varsity will be better prepared. Hopefully, the girls said, that will prove true this season.
It comes down to leading by example, though, and both players are keenly aware that they have to carry a big load.
Mercuro doesn’t expect Wrede and Heath to do it all by themselves.
“I have my forward line which is pretty experienced,” she says. “I have a junior who will replace one of my seniors and she’s looking good. I have Sam Van Siclen, who has been with me since her freshman year. This is her year to take over.”
She admits the backfield is where the team is least experienced, but says the girls are working hard and improving every day.
While it’s important to have good players across the offensive, midfield and defensive line, it’s just as important to have a good option to put in net.
For Mercuro, that’s Anjali Abram, her starting goalie from 2016.
“[Abram] played against a lot of good teams last year,” Mercuro said. “We played West Essex twice. They were number one in the state. We played Oak Knoll, who is usually two in the state. We played a lot of ranked teams and [she] has seen a lot of good field hockey. And she’s ready.”
The team will soon be testing itself against other teams.
This Saturday, Aug. 26, the team travels to Madison High School for its first scrimmage. The Mounties travel to Maryland the following week to play one of the division champions, Archbishop Spalding.
“They’re amazing,” Mercuro said, of the Maryland team.
Then the Mounties head to the New York-New Jersey Challenge in upstate New York, which Mercuro said has some of the best teams around.
“Our preseason is pretty insane,” Mercuro admits. “Hopefully it will prepare us for the teams we have ahead of us.”
Some coaches hesitate to put their players against other squads that may be too big a challenge, but Mercuro says it’s necessary. They have to play up, otherwise they won’t improve.
“Beating a team 7-0 is not doing much for your team. Hopefully this helps us in the long run, come tournament time.”