One could argue that the Montclair State University women’s field hockey team has dealt with the worst luck a college sports team could face during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic sports era.
With only six games on the regular-season schedule for the Red Hawks in the spring 2021 semester, COVID-19 protocols forced the cancellation of half of their games. The Red Hawks went 1-2 in the games they competed in and once again missed out on the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Championship.
Despite the unfair cards the program was dealt, head coach Eileen O’Reilly and her team have chosen to look on the bright side of things.
“A message that we want to keep up every single day is that we are lucky to be here and be doing this in as normal of a way as possible,” O’Reilly said. “When I look back at the spring and think about the things that we did — the pods, weekly testing, practicing in small groups, it’s crazy that we got through it all.”
A big challenge that this team will face is the lack of in-game experience from many of their players due to the shortening of last season. O’Reilly mentioned that many of their younger players, even some seniors, are relatively inexperienced compared to past years.
“This has been a point of emphasis in our planning as [coaches],” O’Reilly said. “Not only with true incoming freshmen and sophomores, but our juniors have only had one normal season and our seniors are our most experienced group with two [normal] seasons. And honestly, for that senior group, a lot of them didn’t see much playing time in those two seasons. In our planning process, the thought was that we do have a pretty young group and that we are inexperienced.”
While the group may not be full of seasoned veterans, the roster is certainly not devoid of talent. Offensively, this team will be led by sophomore midfielder/forward Carlie Van Tassel, the team’s leading goal scorer and the NJAC Rookie Of The Year.
Despite her limited game experience last season, she stepped right in and proved to be a capable scorer. With Elizabeth Cimilluca graduating, Van Tassel will certainly be taking on more responsibility as the primary scoring weapon. One can predict that she will put up an even more impressive season stat line with a full season ahead of her.
“For her, taking it one day at a time and looking at the moment in front of you is huge,” O’Reilly said. “When you receive an accolade like that your freshman year, it’s great that she accomplished that but she has everything to prove this fall. We are asking a lot out of her, so if she can have the [mentality of] one practice, one game at a time, she’ll have a great season.”
Defensively, the group will be led by fifth-year senior captain Maddie Spolarich, senior defender Katelyn Osterlind and junior goalkeeper Lauren Pickul.
Pickul has proven to be a reliable force at the box. She was an Honorable-Mention All-NJAC selection last season and even won the National Field Hockey Coaches Association (NFHCA) Division III Defensive Player of the Week for her sensational 11-save performance in the team’s last regular-season game against Stockton University.
Although, with the loss of standout defender and former First-Team All-NJAC player Janell Harden due to graduation, there will be a big void to fill on this defense.
However, a full offseason has given time for the coaching staff to implement a new defensive strategy that Spolarich and the rest of the team are confident in.
“We don’t necessarily have that one strong force in our backfield like Janell was,” Spolarich said. “With the new system, we are gelling more and working together more, rather than relying on one person.”
Spolarich has been a member of some of the most talented teams in program history, including both the 2017 and 2018 teams that qualified to the Division III National Tournament. The team is thrilled to have her back for one last season, as her experience and leadership will be crucial for this group.
“What made me come back was that I didn’t want my senior year to end the way that it did,” Spolarich said. “My teaching program got pushed back so I already knew I was going to be here an extra semester, so that was a pushing force all throughout the summer to get me back here now because I wanted to have a normal season for my [final year at college].”
The field hockey team has historically been one of the best athletic programs here at Montclair State and with the pandemic-shortened season behind them, Pickul notes that aspirations to win the NJAC Championship have not changed.
“We set high expectations for ourselves on the field and we’ve been pushing ourselves in the preseason practices and scrimmages to improve every day,” Pickul said. “We are going to use what we learned last year in the [COVID-19] season to try to be the best we can.”