Aug. 24, 2011
PHILADELPHIA - After a disappointing finish to the 2010 campaign saw the Saint Joseph's field hockey team miss the Atlantic 10 Championship for the first time in a decade, the Hawks return to the pitch in 2011 with a renewed focus and two primary goals: steady improvement and a return to the postseason.
"Right now, I think the goal is to start bonding on the field as a team," said head coach Michelle Finegan, back for her 15th season on the Hawk sideline. "We want to continue to improve and be better than we were the day before.
"The Atlantic 10 will be competitive, as always," she continued. "We want to get back into the mix and compete and make it back into the tournament. It's a tough road to hoe, but we're looking forward to the challenge."
This year that postseason goal carries a little more motivation as Saint Joseph's will host the Atlantic 10 Field Hockey Championship for the first time since 2007, when SJU reached the championship game on Finnesey Field. The Hawks will look to play for the conference title this season on Ellen Ryan Field, their brand new home turf on the Maguire Campus, expected to be finished early in the season.
After playing the past three seasons at Drexel University, the squad, specifically its five seniors, are eager to take the field along City Avenue.
"I know the seniors are absolutely looking forward to having the opportunity to play on their home field," Finegan said, "and the whole team is eager to play on our home turf. Training, planning, having more time to devote to skills...it's something that will benefit our team a great deal. It's very exciting for our program."
Helping Finegan guide the Hawks into their new digs is a trio of talented new assistant coaches. Former University of Louisville standout Jessica Javelet and seasoned collegiate and high school coach Dallas Alexander have joined the staff this season, as has United States National Team member Shannon Taylor. The group has meshed well together in the preseason, and the depth and diversity of their experience will provide a young Hawk squad with steady guidance and leadership.
"As you're working with a coaching staff, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and with more coaches, you definitely have more strengths," Finegan explained. "We now have three coaches with National Team experience, while Dallas is a strong motivator and excels in team-building and leadership. It's been a huge spark to the team.
"In addition to what the team gains from it," she continued, "I think as a coaching staff, and me personally, I think I gain from it just by having more eyes seeing us play and help make decisions. You see more as a group than as an individual, and it helps."
Also providing leadership for the Crimson and Gray will be five seniors who will be expected to make an impact both on the field and off. Forwards Ellen Rowe and Therese Doyle will be the offensive catalysts at the top of the formation while Theresa Testa will be counted on to hold things down in the midfield and Rachel Walsh will man the backline. In the cage, goalkeeper Liz Messaros will serve as SJU's last line of defense.
"I think we're going to lean on [the seniors] a lot," Finegan said. "They're all strong leaders, and having them connect with the younger players and help them integrate into the team culture and adjust to the changes between high school and college will be helpful."
The Hawks should feature a good bit of pace on the frontline as Rowe and Doyle lead the charge. Rowe has tallied 13 goals in her career, including a nine-goal explosion as a sophomore, and will use her speed to her advantage once again this season.
"Ellen is going to be difficult to stop," Finegan said. "Her speed is tremendous, and she has skill as well, and that makes her hard to mark."
Doyle had a career-high four goals and nine points in her breakout junior campaign and will look to improve on those numbers as a senior.
Newcomers Nicole Gerdes and Jordan Martin have also impressed during camp and will be counted on to pitch in right from the get-go. Adding talented depth to the front line will be freshmen Brittany Meyer and Moira Penza.
"I think we have a group of offensive players that can cause havoc for the opposition," commented Finegan.
Testa returns for her final season in Crimson and Gray as the anchor of the midfield. Coming off a career-best eight points last year, she will combine with Doyle to provide a steady hand in transition for a young Hawk squad.
"Theresa Testa is definitely a leader in the midfield, and Therese Doyle plays some midfield, and we have juniors Abby Hoover and Leigh Deininger moving up there as well, so we have a solid returning core," the head coach explained.
Hoover enjoyed an outstanding sophomore campaign in 2010, starting all 19 games in the backfield leading the team with 10 defensive saves. Deininger cracked the starting lineup eight times as a freshman in 2009 and has played in 32 games in her career.
A three-year starter on the defensive line, Walsh returns for her senior season as a co-captain (along with Rowe) and, alongside fellow senior Messaros, will hold down the fort at the back end for Saint Joseph's.
"Rachel will lead the defense," Finegan shared. "She'll be back there with Liz in the cage and they will provide leadership for our younger defenders."
Sophomore Shannon McNeill slides back from the midfield to compete for time as a back this season, while redshirt freshman Sara Kolobielski and true freshmen Corie McLaughlin and Katie Walsh are in the mix as well.
Adding depth to the defensive corps will be junior Kortney Smith and freshman Jessica Rutkowski. Redshirt freshman goalkeeper Kate Mitchell will also contribute, seeing playing time in the cage in her first season of competition.
The Hawks will play a challenging early season slate that aims to prepare them well for Atlantic 10 conference play. SJU starts off with local rival and perennially-ranked Drexel before taking on Fairfield, Ohio University, and Towson. In addition to annual contests with Penn, Lehigh, and Delaware, SJU will host California for the first regular season meeting between the squads; last season, the Hawks traveled to the Golden State for a preseason scrimmage against the Bears.
"They're usually a top team," Finegan said of Cal. "We also have three games against teams from the Colonial Athletic Association, which is a good conference. We have a pretty solid non-conference schedule, but it will prepare us well for the A-10."
Road trips to Siena and Georgetown and a home contest with Villanova round out the non-conference slate.
In league play, the Hawks will host archrival Temple, Richmond, and Saint Louis, while traveling to defending champion Massachusetts, crosstown rival La Salle, and Lock Haven.
The 2011 Atlantic 10 Field Hockey Championship at Ryan Field will be played on November 4 and 5.
Ultimately, Saint Joseph's hopes to be there on the field, competing for the league title. If the Hawks can lift the 2011 Atlantic 10 Championship trophy, they certainly won't have far to go to put it in the Hagan Arena trophy case.
After three years off campus, it'll be just a quick walk across the street.