by Andrew Garda
Montclair High School head field hockey coach Mary Pat Mercuro has a problem, but it’s one most coaches would like to have.
She’s just got too many talented players trying out this year.
“We’re close to 80,” she said. “We’ve got good problems.”
The sophomore class is especially deep this year, with enough girls for Mercuro and her staff to run a separate sophomore scrimmage this Tuesday morning.
“I’ve got a lot of sophomores who want to play,” Mercuro explains between moments where she encourages or admonishes her players. “I’ve got a handful of juniors. And everybody is pushing each other every day. Every position is open.”
Leading the way will be five seniors. Fiona Campbell, Maggie Garland, Kate Festa, Amanda Murnick and Sadie Reynolds have been with Mercuro since before high school, and they know what she expects of her team.
“It’s a new team and a lot of younger players,” Maggie Garland said. “We’re still trying to figure out our motion on the field and our passing. So, our goal is really forming a bond and continuing to build on it.”
Fiona Campbell agrees.
“We only have five seniors, so one of my main goals is to build up the program,” she explains. “To build the younger girls up so they have more confidence, and they can take it even farther next year.”
Loyalty is what Mercuro is looking for, she said. “Loyalty to one another, loyalty to the program. And these kids are there for each other through thick and thin. I’ll be getting on someone and when I’m done and walk away there’s always someone saying ‘Don’t worry about it, let’s go let’s do this.’”
That starts with the captains.
“I had a sophomore, she played JV here last year,” Mercuro said. “And she’s good, she’s fast. But her stickwork is just not there. I pull up 15 minutes before practice, and [Fiona’s] on the field doing stickwork with this girl.”
While it’s not required, it’s expected that the older players reach back and help the new additions.
“Coach really emphasizes teaching the girls who are younger than you, the underclassmen,” said starting goalie Amanda Murnick. “I take the goalies and I pull them aside. I think it’s really important because she wants to make sure what she’s conveying to the varsity team is also brought down to the other teams and making sure her message is spread to everyone.”
Meanwhile, Mercuro is working on harnessing something else this team has an abundance of – speed.
“My outside players are so fast,” Mercuro said. “Which is nice, because I’ve got Fiona in the middle, who’s probably one of the smartest players I’ve ever had. She’s not the fastest player, but she makes up for it with her knowledge of the game, her good decision-making and her skills. All she needs to do is pop a ball out to the side and these girls on the sides swarm all over it.”
Montclair has always had a fast team, and the field at Watchung is equally fast. The turf on the aging field lays fairly flat, which means a field hockey ball goes further, faster, than on many other fields.
With Campbell in the middle, teams have to stay focused there, but they cannot let MHS players roam free along the sideline, where Campbell can hit them with a quick pass, allowing them to streak into the offensive end for an attack.
Montclair lost to Montclair Kimberley Academy in overtime in the Essex County semifinals, and then lost to Morristown in the State Championship. In both cases MHS was on the road, and the opposing team’s turf was taller and slower.
“I think we have to be ready and, hopefully, have a good enough record so we do get home field advantage,” Mercuro said. “It’s important. I mean this field is pretty beat up as you can see. But it’s our field and [groundskeeper] Troy [Hill] will do everything he can to get it in better shape. But it’s a very fast field, and it plays into our style of play.”
If they have their choice, the seniors would love a shot at both of the teams who took them down in tournament play last year. MKA is someone they managed to beat once in the regular season, but all five girls feel the loss in the county semifinals stung. And Morristown was a game which could have gone either way, with MHS falling just short in overtime.
They want another shot at those two programs.
For Murnick, there’s another school she’d like to take down as well.
“We also go to Maryland and play Bishop Spalding,” she said. “They always come to play and they are a huge rivalry for us. To start the season with a win over a team [like that] could be a great motivation for all of us.”
If they can win those games, the girls say they’ll have Coach Mercuro to thank for it.
“It’s a family environment, and that all comes down to coach,” said Kate Festa. “She’s always there building everyone up, and she knows everyone’s name in the program, even though there are so many. She takes the time to create a connection with each individual person, build them up and make them the player she knows they can be.”
“Coach really wants us to push ourselves and she drives that home a lot,” said Sadie Reynolds. “She wants us to work hard and she wants us to feel good about how we’re [doing]. Not only does she want us to feel good, she wants us to be confident in how were playing.”
If Mercuro and her seniors can get the rest of the girls to play to their full potential, this team will have a shot at redemption in both the county and state tournaments.