The first in a series of season wrap-up stories on fall sport teams.
LEWISTON, Maine – The Bates College field hockey team made strides throughout the second half of the 2013 season, particularly on the defensive end of the field, as head coach Danielle Ryder began to implement a reinvented style of play in her first season as the team's leader.
"I think that for the most part the team really adopted our new structure well. We knew that it would take a while, and it took most of September to get that down and really work out the kinks," Ryder said. "Then in October, we finally started to see some results."
The team posted a three-game win streak at the start of the second month of the season after working through a difficult September schedule that included match-ups with three nationally-ranked opponents. With Ryder only joining the team in June, the staff did not have the time to piece together a full enough roster to scrimmage during practices which resulted in the team learning lessons in games early in the season rather than on the practice field.
"In our first few games, we would have some ups and downs in the first half, and then we would spend halftime fixing things that we would typically fix in a practice scrimmage and then have a great second half," Ryder said. "I think consistently our second halves were really strong which was showing an improvement and gave us that light of hope moving forward that we were doing the right things."
Despite its 4-10 record, the program made a number of improvements, with an emphasis on defense, that – coupled with a solidified culture and a returning group more experienced with Ryder's system – should provide a foundation for years to come.
The Bobcats set in motion several adjustments over the course of the season both on the field and in their attitude.
"One of the primary changes we made was to our defensive structure which I think proved very successful," Ryder said. "I think building off of that we just need to collect layers."
Demonstrating that defensive progress, the team recorded its best goal differential since 2008 and its best goals-against average since 2006. In particular, Ryder credits the squad's commitment to penalty corner defense – the team allowed single-digit goals on over 150 corners – as a critical part of the team's better defensive play.
Ryder also points to a shift in the team's mental approach as a significant factor to the program's stronger performances in the second half of the year.
"I think once we got that first month under our belts, it really started to click for our players – what our mindset was going into the game," Ryder said. "For the large part of the first half of the season they definitely had an 'underdog' mentality. As they started to compete with some teams and as we started to watch some video, we realized we weren't that far off."
Bates opened the season with an offensive outburst, downing Thomas College 8-2 on Sept. 5 as junior Caroline Falcone (New Canaan, Conn.) scored a career-high five goals. The team next battled then-No. 1 Tufts in a 1-0 setback which began a seven-game skid.
The Bobcats reversed that momentum with a stretch of three consecutive wins in the first half of October, starting with a 3-1 triumph at Southern Maine on Oct. 3. The squad followed that effort with a 2-1 NESCAC victory at Connecticut College (Oct. 5), and the streak culminated with an impressive 4-1 win over Babson (Oct. 13) – a team that entered the contest having won six of its previous seven games.
The team continued to show signs of its progress through the remainder of the month as the Bobcats challenged then-No. 4 and eventual NESCAC champion Middlebury in a 4-2 loss on Oct. 19. Bates also played evenly with its last two opponents, losing one-goal contests at Williams (1-0 on Oct. 26) and at Colby (2-1 in OT on Oct. 30).
In the month of October, Bates outscored its opponents 12-10, and against non-nationally-ranked opponents, the Bobcats outscored such foes, 19-15, on the year. Those successes paired with competitive play against perennial powers such as Tufts and Middlebury support the team's hopes for an improved record in 2014.
Bates will return a number of players who gained playing time this past season but also have a senior class to thank for setting a positive example for future student-athletes in the program.
The team's five-member senior class – Lexie Carter (Saco, Maine), Bridget Meedzan (Ipswich, Mass.), Polly Merck (Beverly Farms, Mass.), Becca Otley (Cumberland, Maine), and Sarah Warden (North Andover, Mass.) – combined for 65 games played in 2013 and demonstrated an exemplary work ethic for the squad's younger players.
"Definitely the senior class played a huge part into our success this year. They bought in pretty unselfishly knowing that they would be here for just the one season and knowing that we weren't going to make a complete turnaround in one season," Ryder said. "I think because they did that, they set a really good standard for everyone that's returning."
The Bobcats will welcome back two juniors – Jillian Conway (Andover, Mass.) and Falcone – five sophomores in Shannon Beaton (West Newbury, Mass.), Hannah Beinecke (Manchester, Mass.), Alex Eliopoulos (Akron, Ohio), Danielle Pierce (Parsonsfield, Maine), and Cristina Vega (Needham, Mass) – and four first-years – Sydney Cowles (Wayne, Pa.), Isobel Curtis (Fairfield, Conn.), Claire Markonic (Millerton, N.Y.), and Casey Oehler (Wallingford, Pa.) – who all gained valuable and significant experience in 2013 and will give the team a backbone of maturity next fall.
"We have a lot of talent returning," Ryder said. "It will be nice to start off with a core group who understands what went on this season and understands the changes that we made."