by: Timothy Rocha
Ranked 18th nationally, the University of Maine field hockey team has seen their share of success this year. Holding a 15-3 season record, with a 5-1 record in their conference, the Black Bears are playing well deep into the season due to their team’s strong leadership, key players and excellent coaching.
The Black Bears started the season focused and determined to try and get to the top of the America East Conference.
“Our returning players had a strong spring season together, and had meetings together about setting higher standards for our program and what our expectations were,” Head Coach Josette Babineau said.
The preparation paid off as numerous players stepped up early on in the season. No two players have been more important to the Black Bear’s success than third-year forward Danielle Aviani and third-year midfielder Sydney Veljacic. Both players have allowed the Black Bears to play aggressively and put points on the board with ease.
“It’s been great for us to have two junior players in the center of the field,” Babineau said. “Both have been great for our program from the beginning. Both have developed a lot over their careers here.”
Aviani has eight goals on the season, making her a key player who is able to put pressure on the other team’s goal. With a team leading 10 scores, Veljacic has been a dominant force throughout the year, as she has stepped into a new role and thrived.
“Sydney was playing as an outside midfielder before when we had Annabel Hamilton last year, and we were able to move her over to the center this year, which has put her in more positions to score goals. She’s also incredibly dangerous on our penalty corner attack,” Babineau said.
But the list of key players doesn’t stop there, as Maine has been able to rely on senior leadership to help guide their younger players. Back Nicole Sevey, midfielder Marissa Shaw, and forwards Jessica Skillings, Katie Bingle and Cassidy Svetek have all seen success on the field as they prepare to end their final season with the Black Bears on a high note.
“All five of them contribute greatly on the field. They’ve been key to what we do,” Babineau said. “They’ve all had a great approach with the first-year players. They’re soft spoken and have a good way of making those people feel comfortable with their roles on the field without being on them all the time.”
The only place that seemed to lack experience was in the goal. Both second-year goalkeepers Emma Cochran and Emily Corbett are still trying to develop their skills as the season winds to a close.
“With our program we’ve unfortunately been in a position where we’ve had turnover at goaltender, and haven’t always been as experienced as we wanted to be,” Babineau said. “Even though we were a strong team last year, we were a little young in goal, and both of our goalies now were our goalies last year, but because being redshirted, last year was truly their first year playing in games for us.”
At first glance, their limited action would seem like a weakness for the team, but the two goalkeepers have performed well this year. Corbett has made 36 saves while only allowing 10 goals. Named the America East Conference Defensive Player of the Week earlier in the season, Corbett has shined at times while defending Maine’s net. Similarly, Cochran has made 27 saves, while giving up 13 scores. Through 18 games, the two goalies have only allowed opposing teams to score three goals twice. On top of that, they have also forced three shutout victories against Holy Cross, Bryant University and conference rival UMass Lowell.
The Black Bears have been dominant this season, not just because of their star players, but also because of solid performances from their first-year players. With eight first-year players on the roster, Maine has been able to let some of them experience meaningful game time. First-years Samantha Wagg and Libby Riedl have both earned America East Conference Rookie of the Week honors twice, with Riedl also earning Player of the Week honors as well. In addition, Casey Crowley has also earned Rookie of the Week honors. The success of each rookie can be traced back to recruitment.
“We’ve done a good job of recruiting and trying to keep the standards high for the players coming in and high for those who are already here,” Babineau said.
With a talented group of first-year players, Maine can continue to develop them into key players for the upcoming seasons.
But above all, the biggest reason for the Black Bear’s success can be attributed to Babineau. With 98 coaching wins in her ninth season, she has brought the field hockey team to new heights. Back when Babineau first started, her goal was to take the program and form it into her own.
“We wanted to develop our own style of play, which isn’t something you can do over one season. It’s really about developing players over time, through their four years,” Babineau said.
Years later, she now stands in the perfect position. With key players all over the field, and numerous first-year players ready to step into their shoes once they graduate. The team is primed with the perfect combination of leadership and talent.
Moving forward, Maine will have two more shots to improve upon their 15-3 season record. The Black Bears will finish the season by hosting the University of Vermont and then hitting the road to take on the University of New Hampshire in conference games.
After that, the Black Bears will enter a tournament consisting of four teams from the East and four teams from the West. Maine’s first quarterfinal game will be played against an undetermined nationally ranked team from California, which is a first for the Black Bears.
If Maine can play well through the tournament and beat other nationally ranked teams, Maine may have a chance to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Despite their success this year, the Black Bears will be facing tough competition during the tournament.
“It will be very different, and it will be a lot of field hockey in a short period of time. Teams will need to be very fit to make it through the tournament,” Babineau said.
The road ahead may be difficult, but this team has shown time after time that they are a special team. Only the future will be able to determine how special.