By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
Dorian Gilmartin returns for her second year as head coach of the Hillsborough High School field hockey team with a more experienced group and higher expectations.
“I see that fire in their eyes that they’re excited and they’re chomping at the bit,” Gilmartin said. “They know they’ll do well this year as long as they buckle down and take care or the little details.”
The Raiders crushed East Brunswick and Steinert in scrimmages, and they are shaping up to be the sort of group that can surprise teams in the competitive Skyland Conference.
“We handled both teams pretty well,” Gilmartin said. “What I’m really excited about for this season, what I’ve already seen so far, is the experience we have coming back mixing in with some of the youth we have. We have some really good sophomores that we had coming up last year at the end of the year that are finding their spot with the system we play.
“We only let up two goals and we outshot our opponents by a ton. Once we start our conference and county, we’ll see a totally different level.”
Hillsborough upset Ridge last year. There are no weak teams in the Skyland Conference, which features some of the best teams in the state. The Raiders’ biggest challenge this season will be trying to close out games. Hillsborough was 6-13-2 last year with eight games decided by a goal or ending in a tie, close to turning things around in many instances.
“That was one of the first things I brought up to the team,” Gilmartin said. “If you look at how many games we lost by one goal, or in overtime or tied, we were that close. We didn’t lose a lot. We lost some key role players, but we haven’t lost the core of our team. We still have a solid center of the field, our center forward, center midfield and center back. It’s getting the people around them that will make us successful. We were knocking on the door, but we came up a little short on a few.”
This year’s team returns eight starters from a year ago led by captains Rihannon Accetta, Gianna Napoletano and Maggie Ryan. The rest of the team includes: Allie Benadon, Gianna Della Fera, Kate Donnelly, Brooke Dubyna, Valeria Hirsch, Courtney Neary, Melissa Nobile, Shea Oryniak, Elizabeth Reilly, Annie Ryan Dakota Seidel, Sarah Spence, Emily Van Pelt and Tara Wattal.
“I have huge expectations for this team,” Gilmartin said. “They’re never way out there. There’s no reason we can’t go and be .500.”
Hillsborough will get an early test. They open the season next Thursday against Hunterdon Central, a Skyland and state power.
“It’s nice,” Gilmartin said. “We get to open against Central, like we did last year. It was baptism by fire. We get to do it one more time. Not only do they have the experience, I have the experience. I’m excited to open against Central and see what we can do. We’re going to come out and try to make our mark win, lose or draw.
“Two weeks after school starts, I told them I expect to be 3-1. I have high expectations for the team. I tell them every day. I’m never going to have expectations that are out of reach. I easily see us going .500 at least and getting back into states. With the record we should have, we should be able to make it out of the first round of counties for the first time in a long time. I think they’re excited to get on the field and play for games that will count again.”
Hillsborough had one more scrimmage this week, but then will start gearing up for the start of the regular season. Gilmartin feels more comfortable in her second year at the helm of her alma mater, and will use last year’s experience as a resource.
“Definitely something I took away from it was how this team really works as a unit, as a whole,” Gilmartin said. “When I was in school, we had one or two girls that we would rely on. But this team, it’s like football and having running back by committee, that’s what we’re going to be like. We need everyone contributing and doing a part.
“I never really realized that until I was a coach and saw how the cogs fit in how important that is. We have a lot of girls that can be put in different spots. We have the four that will be put in the middle and the rest can be anywhere. We’ll be a solid team of 17 girls. That whole well-oiled machine concept, I was reminded of that as a coach again. I can’t rely on one or two girls. It’s the entire team that will take us from Point A to Point B.”
The Raiders are hoping that they can prove early how much improved they are as a team. Gilmartin is pushing her team to expect more of themselves.
“I don’t think a lot of teams think we’ll be as good as I foresee us being,” she said. “I’ve said, ‘Let’s catch them on their heels and score two or three and make them try to come back.’ If we caught them on their heels, it would be a totally different game in a lot of cases.”
Leading returning scorer Melissa Nobile is someone reliable at the offensive end, and the Raiders have shown this preseason an ability to score with 19 goals combined in their first two scrimmages. Gilmartin will be playing the girls that produce the most as the season gets underway. In the Skyland, they can’t rely on shutting out teams so they will need scoring.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t score any,” Gilmartin said. “We’ve been focusing on that a lot. Our defense is solid with a lot coming back from last year. I think the people we have back are going to be a big help in the scoring column this year.”
The offense is already flowing better than a year ago, and with veterans back on defense and in the midfield, there is a greater confidence. They will need it as they start the season against an always competitive schedule.
“The biggest question mark is where we fall in our conference and county,” Gilmartin said. “I think we’re leaps and bounds better than we were last year all over the field. It’s how do we match up with the Bridgewater, Central and Ridge. I have faith they can score goals, match up, and I have no problem betting the house on my girls.”
With experience back and higher expectations, all the pieces are in place for a better season for the Raiders. Gilmartin and her team can’t wait for the start to see how they measure up.
“It’s that little extra push,” she said. “If we have it, we’re golden.”
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group