By John Goralski
Last year, the Lady Knights seemed to scowl each time the ball skipped off a tuft of grass to spark an official’s whistle. Each time an offensive rush was stalled by a string of whistles, the girls would glance longingly at the construction of Southington’s artificial turf field.
It was a long wait for everyone, but nobody wanted it more than the field hockey girls. “It would make us better,” their coach would wail as perennial powerhouse teams out-lasted us with superior skills. “It’s going to be different,” they charged as the losses piled up.
On the last day of the season, officials finally opened the gates. The win made believers of even their harshest critic.
“It’s a completely different game on the turf,” said Lady Knight coach Erin Luddy. “Soccer is still pretty much the same thing. Football is similar, but in this sport it allows the ball to stay completely on the ground. No matter how good the grass is, that can’t happen. There are irregular pop-ups that change the speed of the game. It changes how you run, how you pass from offense to defense, and how you field quickly. The impact on this game is much greater than any other sport.”
Now, comes the proof.
Luddy’s whole demeanor has changed this preseason as the girls raced across the turf during preseason practices. The excuses are gone. The expectations have risen, and Luddy’s team has embraced the challenge. This season is a turning point for the Knights, and Luddy urges fans to take a second look at her varsity program. They won’t be disappointed.
“The game is so much smoother on turf,” said the coach. “Watching it on grass is so different. It has so many more whistles on the grass because the ball can jump and the ref has to keep control of the game. When the ball stays on the ground, it’s so much smoother and so much easier to watch.”
Even the strategy is different. No longer will the Knights crack Hail Mary drives across the field in the hopes that a teammate will be ready for whatever bounce it brings. Now, Luddy’s offense will be built on short passes and transition. Short surges will be replaced by longer possessions.
To accommodate the change of strategy, Luddy has shifted an extra player into the midfield. Co-captain Alexa Mitchell will lead a strong core of returning players which includes seniors Liz Stearns and Lauren Zazzaro with junior Jess Lee.
“That’s a big group, and they are all comfortable in that position even though we’ll be changing up the format a little bit because of the turf,” said Luddy. “They’re still adjusting, but that should be a strength for us. They’ll be doing so much running, but they’ll have that extra body to help them.”
Despite the faster surface, the Knights expect to continue their legacy of solid defense. Juniors Meagan Asklar and Megan Palumbo will anchor the middle of the lineup. Valerie Szmurlo has done a good job at filling the hole left in the net by graduation. Luddy is still working out the rest of the defense, but she expects it to be as solid as ever.
“Our sweeper position is still up for debate, but we’ll be ready to play,” said the coach. “They are a tight knit group. They all seem to work well together, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.”
The biggest challenge will be reloading an offense that was decimated by graduation. Junior Allie Abacherli is the only returning starter, but the leadership of co-captains Gabby Baker and Elisa Ferens should help the Knights to put pressure on their opponents. In addition, Lauren Mitchell returns to the varsity field after missing the entire season last year with an injury.
“I have some talent up front. They’re a good group, and they all seem to be getting along well. They’re driving each other and having a good time doing it,” said Luddy, “but we have to fill a lot of key holes. We have some girls that are going to be starting varsity for their first time, and they’re replacing some experienced players. That’s my biggest question.”
Luddy expects the Knights to return to the postseason. She expects to challenge for a home game and welcomes the challenge of the early season when Southington will match themselves up against the perennial powers like Glastonbury and Simsbury that have enjoyed too much success against the Lady Knights.
This is the year that Luddy expects to change that trend.
“We have Glastonbury in our first game, and in the past we’ve approached that game with a little too much fear. Now, we feel that we’re on the same level with the same expectations, so we’re addressing that game much differently,” she said. “This is what we’ve always wanted, and it’s what’s needed for our game. Now, the girls can start to think about using this sport to get to college. Scouts won’t look at you when you play on grass. This field is going to open so many doors for them. I’m excited.”
Will this be the year that Southington finally upends some of their early season competition? Will they be able to lock up a postseason berth before the cold weather arrives so that their annual late season push becomes a way to jockey for tournament seeding?
Luddy has already increased the conditioning so that her Knights are prepared for the fast turf contests. The skills have already improved as the Knights practice on the perfectly manicured surface.
Come out and give them a second look.
“We’ve had a lot of playing time on the turf during practice,” said Luddy. “We’re going to have a lot of games on it, and we’re ready. They know that the field is there for them to use, and we’re really excited about it.”
Let the games begin…
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By John Goralski