The start of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) field hockey season is two months away, but varsity Head Coach Lisa Knight and Assistant Coach Beth O’Connor got an inspired head start by bringing the prestigious All-American Field Hockey Camps (AAFHC) to the Island on June 26, 27, and 28.
More than 30 students, some experienced and some coming out of elementary school with no experience at all, worked with elite coaches and players, sharpening skills and learning basic fundamentals, in an encouraging, teambuilding environment.
Amy Kilgore, head coach at Novi High School in Michigan, and a former standout player at the University of Michigan, was head coach for the three-day camp. Jane Nixon, another ex-Wolverine star, head coach at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, and National Coach of the Year in 2010, also coached the enthusiastic group of campers.
Assisting Ms. Kilgore and Ms. Nixon were Rachel Telian, a four-year starting right midfielder and two-time All-Academic Big 10 honoree at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., and Haley Natarantonio, currently a redshirt junior forward at UMass Amherst.
For Coach Knight, having current and prospective players learn from such highly regarded instructors was an opportunity not to be missed heading into the new season.
“What’s so great about this is that you get four new sets of eyes,” Coach Knight said. “They’re really experienced coaches who can come out here and look and fine-tune some of the older girls, and really help them with other skill sets that I can’t see because I’m just used to the way they play. We’re talking about really intense coaches. I’m not going to say I’m a bad coach, and I’m not going to say that I’m the best coach. I’ve coached a long time, but these guys are All-Americans, and they’re up to date on all the techniques. They played in college, and it’s kind of neat to see.”
During the camp, the players worked on offensive and defensive drills, set plays, and simulated game play. One of the biggest challenges for the AAFHC staff was to come up with a game plan that benefited experienced players and newcomers alike.
“We have to be kind of diversified in the way we approach it, because we’ve got 12 girls who have never, ever played before, and then girls who have a tremendous amount of skill,” Coach Kilgore said. “So we divide them by experience level. We try to make the top girls much better, and we’re trying to teach the freshmen, who are just beginning, the ins and outs of the game and really strong basics, so when they hit the preseason, they have strong basics already.”
Rachel Telian, who closed out the second day of practices by working on offensive and defensive positioning for short corners, embraced the challenge of teaching players with diverse skill sets.
“I think a unique thing about an opportunity like this to come into a high school, as such, you have a wide variety,” she said. “Some of these girls have never picked up a stick before, and then there are the senior leaders, who are ready to go and gain new responsibilities and lead their team. It’s fun to try and facilitate all those different levels, and just kind of step into something that’s an established tradition and have fun.”
Judging from the enthusiasm and good spirits evident on the practice field, the players responded well to the coaching strategies.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” said MVRHS senior captain Lily Pigott. “I think the girls are learning a lot. It’s nice to have a new perspective and coaching. It’s fun to learn from different people, and obviously these coaches are really experienced. It’s really nice for the freshman. I wish I had had that opportunity when I was a freshman.”
“Right now, it’s a great camaraderie thing for these girls,” added Coach Knight. “School just got out, and we’re already in camp.”
By the end of the second day of camp, each member of the AAFHC staff was impressed by the Vineyarders’ work ethic and their positive attitudes.
“I think we’re having a great week,” Coach Kilgore said. “These are the hardest-working kids; they’re really kind girls, who appreciate everything we’re bringing to them. It’s been really fun. They’re a great group of girls.”
Coach Nixon agreed: “It’s a really inspirational camp. The coaching staff they have here is phenomenal, with Lisa [Knight] and Beth [O’Connor]. It’s been really fun to be here with the kids. They are a motivated group, have so much promise, and are fun to work with.”
After helping players sharpen offensive skills in front of goal, Haley Natarantonio praised the newcomers in the group. “I think it’s really good so far, especially the progress of the freshmen,” she said. “Everyone is really enthusiastic and really excited about picking up a stick and getting involved in the practices.”
With incoming freshmen comprising nearly half of the students in the camp. Coach Knight and her young charges will be one step ahead of the game when “hell week” (the week of grueling practices prior to the start of the new season) begins in late August.
“One of the best things [about the camp] is that eighth graders, when they come out of elementary school, they don’t know what field hockey is,” she said. “So it’s our job when they come into the ninth grade to teach them and start from square one. There are 14 eighth graders out there right now, touching the ball. They don’t know anything about field hockey, but they chose to come here, which says something, No. 1, about the program, and, No. 2, about them taking a risk, taking a chance, and saying, ‘I’m going to go out and try this.’ They came. They’re not leaving. Every one of them stayed, and they played field hockey tonight. Day two [of camp], and I looked and they’re playing field hockey. They’re all like, ‘We’re playing field hockey!’”