Shelton field hockey team maintains momentum
SHELTON — It took a convergence of like-minded individuals to pump lifeblood into the Shelton High field hockey program.
“We could do it right and work toward improving, or we could sing the same old song,” Shelton head coach Jeff Napoli said of his charges choosing to alter a course that registered an 0-47-1 record since switching from club status to becoming a full-fledged varsity sport in the fall of 2016.
In 2019, Shelton graduated its first class of field hockey players when it posted a record-setting mark of 2-11-3.
The switch had been turned on. Now it was up to team captains Cate Santa, Sammy Rago and Keira O’Connor to make sure the light stayed in the play-to-win position.
“I told our captains that as a team we needed to do something in the offseason,” said Napoli, who is assisted by Bill Maloney. “We had girls that took it seriously and others that played just to play. These captains do take it seriously. They told the team: ‘We are doing offseason stuff, and everyone is coming; we are doing captain’s practice, and everyone is coming.’ You can see the improvement.”
Shelton will take a standard-setting three wins and a 3-5 record into its final two games of the regular season.
Santa, Rago and O’Connor took Napoli’s marching orders and executed a plan. No longer were sticks to be dropped in late October and picked up again the following August.
First came winter clinics at InSports in Trumbull and then captain’s practice over the summer.
“It was hard losing most of our varsity starters from last year, so we really needed to get together,” said Rago, who plays right-side attack said. “We started with offseason clinics. That helped everyone from incoming freshmen to the seniors.”
Santa is pleased with how the team responded to the extra work.
“As captains we decided to make the team better and try to grow the program,” said Santa, a center-midfielder. “Every single girl on the team wants to win, wants to do better.”
According to O’Connor, last year’s success fueled the team to do better.
“With a team so new, we needed to work on stick skills, not only conditioning,” said O’Connor, a center-mid. “Our underclass has gotten a lot stronger. The majority of the team went to that clinic and it really helped with stick skills.”
Napoli took over the program in 2017.
“It was exciting for me because it was a new sport to learn and coach,” he said. “And the program was still young, so we had an opportunity to build something together.
Maloney came on board as an assistant in 2018.
“Bill and I couldn’t be happier this year with the girls’ work-ethic and attitude,” Napoli said. “We love going to practice with them and seeing how it shows up in the games.”
“Brooke Muller, Jackie Jenco and Caroline Richmond lead us on defense,” Napoli said. “Amanda Kiman is left-midfield, Rachel Kiman right-mid, with O’Connor and Santa at center-mid. Center attack is Tiffany Montoya with Avalina Maurati on the left and Rago on the right. Maddie Cyr is in goal.”
Napoli gave a scouting report on his seniors.
Brooke Muller: “Brooke has been the best defensemen the program has seen. She tore her ACL at the end of last season and came back as strong as ever to lead us. She is the heart of the defense.”
Cate Santa: “I always refer to her as the ‘Director of the Show.’ She takes all of our big hits, has the best stick skills, and knows where to place the ball. She is a major piece of our team.
Sam Rago: “Sammy is extremely hard working, willing to play anywhere on the field, and has done so, switching between attack and defense throughout the season. She is a team player who will sacrifice anything for the team, a true captain”
Keira O’Connor: “As Cate is the director, Keira plays the lead in scoring goals. She plays great defense and has a great sport IQ for us. Keira works extremely hard on both ends of the field and is an extreme competitor.”
Each captain took a separate path to the sport.
After giving up soccer in 6th grade, Santa’s parents looked for another sport and found field hockey.
“They put me in a Trumbull program because Shelton doesn’t have a junior field hockey program,” Santa said. “I think it helped me because I knew what I was doing. It is hard for our players to come in when they are 14 and play a new sport. That said, I think all the girls have done a great job adjusting to the sport.”
O’Connor, already big on playing basketball, took up field hockey to stay active and be with friends. “I learned to love it,” O’Connor said. “It is a fast-paced game, there is no stopping, it’s fun, and a great environment to be in.”
Rago, as a frosh knew joining a new program without experience wasn’t a setback. “I’ve been playing lacrosse since 6th grade,” Rago said. “Field hockey was something I just started doing. As I’ve gotten older, I love the game. I have a greater appreciation for the sport and that comes from my teammates, my coaches and how much we’ve forged together these past four years.”
Rago points to the give and take between players and coaches as critical.
“Coach Napoli is always talking to us about new plays that he has, sending us game films to study, or talking about teams we are going to play,” Rago said. “We now have coaches that are consistent and willing to work with us. That has motivated all the girls because we have a coach that believes in us.”
O’Connor likes the team’s growth.
“We’ve grown so much as a program the last two years and everyone has seen what we are capable of doing,” O’Connor said. “Coach Napoli has been able to figure it out, teach us, and keep it fun. A lot of it is basic sports IQ stuff to begin with. He is a very positive coach and knows that for most everyone it is a new sport. He is the biggest factor in our success.”
Santa has played many sports with many coaches.
“Coach Maloney and Mr. Napoli are the best coaches I’ve ever had,” she said. “They are super dedicated and tell us when we must work harder. We had three coaches quit, and for me knowing they are here with us is everything. They put all their effort into making us better.”
Santa plans on playing field hockey, either club or varsity in college.
“Field hockey is such a big part of my life,” she said. “With COVID, and being home every day, it is literally a breath of fresh air to go to practice and be with girls that love the sport.”
Rago said: “Last year it was a big deal to just win one game. Once we had that under our belt, we knew we could do this. Our goal wasn’t one win anymore, it was to win most of our games. It is nice to see -- to go from losing to a team by 14 goals last year to being tied 0-0 in the 4th quarter is nice.”
The captains credit their coaches for their positivity.
“I think the skill level with our younger girls is so good and our juniors are committed,” Rago said. “The freshmen are doing a great job. I think the skill level and the dedication is there, which is why we’ve been able to win this year. We are all in this together.”
The SCC will hold a postseason with Shelton taking on Division B rivals Amity, Hamden, North Haven, Lauralton Hall and Sacred Heart Academy. First round games are tentatively scheduled to be played Friday, with semifinals on Nov. 10 and the title game on Nov. 14.
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