by Andrew Garda
When Montclair High School field hockey coach Mary Pat Mercuro showed up at Watchung Field for an early practice, she found her team already there and practicing.
“I said [to them] yesterday, there’s things you have to do on your own,” Mercuro said. “When you get here early for practice, grab a ball, start doing something. [This morning] there was a group of girls doing corners, a group practicing their hits.”
Mercuro’s team is hungry and it shows. The team has not won an NJSIAA sectional title since 2015 and is desperate to prove that’s where they belong.
That won’t be easy. Not only does Montclair play in a tough division, they also have a small class of seniors. Just five girls make up the upperclassmen, which means the team is young.
Mercuro said that while they may not have experience, the Mounties have two very important things — aggression and leadership.
“In the past you have your talented players, your true field hockey players, and sometimes they’re a little reserved because they don’t want to make mistakes,” she explains. “These girls — 50/50 balls, they go for them and a lot of times they get it because they’re going for it. There are other teams I’ve had where they didn’t, and if you hesitate in this game, you aren’t going to be successful. These kids don’t hesitate. They go all out. Every ball, they think it’s theirs.”
Mercuro says she stresses that every mistake is an opportunity to learn and if you never make an error, you’ll never learn.
Her captains agree.
“We know that if someone messes up on a team, we’re not going to blame them or get down on them,” said Leah Plawker. “Especially with underclassmen if they come up to varsity, if they mess up in a game or something, I feel like they’ll blame themselves and never stop thinking about it. Since we’re so positive, it makes them feel a lot better and they play better as a result.”
Team building is another part of helping the younger players feel more comfortable. The Mounties are working to get to know each other and each player’s strengths. During the preseason, the team took a trip for a tournament in Maryland.
Another captain, Madeline Crane, said it was a great bonding experience.
“It was really easy,” she said. “Everyone laughed all the time, and it was good to be together.”
Crane said that teams that are close off the field have more success on it.
“I think that a really close knit team is a team that’s going to go far. You just know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so we can work on them,” Crane said.
Sosi Korian, who is also a captain, said that the team leaders have played together since youth field hockey, so they model the closeness the team is trying to gain.
“We’re all best friends and leading by example like that, being positive with each other and setting an example with friendship and leadership that the younger ones pick up on is important,” Korian said.
Mercuro said as the team continues to progress, they’ve become more and more fun to watch. And with so many open spots, the girls are competing hard, every day.
According to Mercuro, that’s why the team does things like attack every 50/50 ball or show up early for practice.
“They feel like it’s their turn,” she said. “And they want to change things.”
The Mounties started their journey to that goal on Tuesday, with a big 3-1 win over North 1, Group IV rival Randolph. Korian scored a pair of goals, while Julia Magaldi added the third. Junior goalkeeper Amanda Murnick made two saves.
Both the teamwork and the aggression Mercuro and her captains talked about were on display. The team showed tremendous chemistry and teamwork — a testament to their team-building — and were unrelenting in their aggressive play and pressure. The Mounties spent much of the game in Randolph’s end, and if it wasn’t for the exceptional goaltending of Rams goalie Alexis Shaunessy, MHS would probably have won by a larger margin.
Mercuro and her captains promised an energized, aggressive team and that’s what they showed us on Tuesday. Their 3-1 win should warn other teams that this Mounties squad is not to be taken lightly.