by Andrew Garda

The 2016 field hockey season was a rebuilding year for Montclair Kimberley Academy head coach Gian Nappi and her team. Last year’s freshman-heavy unit took a little while to get going, losing its first four games as it tried to find its feet.

With a year under their belt, this group now looks to improve on its 8-12-2 2016 record and Coach Nappi is confident.

“This upcoming season we have high expectations because last year was kind of a rebuilding year with all the freshmen we had,” she said. “Now that they are a little bit older and have been working in the offseason, we expect them to have a much better year than we did last year. We’re expecting to put up some good competition, across the board.

“We actually have a lot of returners from last year,” Nappi said. “I think that makes it easier for our team to jell because they kind of know each other already. And then, the few freshmen that we do have are fitting in really well, so the coaching staff is really happy about that.”

It helps to have senior captains who can lead by example, and that is what Nappi has in Alix Talkow and Sophia Garrubbo.

“We have two really good captains,” Nappi said. “They’re doing a really good job on and off the field getting the girls to bond and mesh together.”

“Personally my goal is to keep the team as one unit,” Talkow said during a recent practice. “And we have already started a little slogan, ‘All in.’ We remind ourselves of it before we go in for the games and practice, to really be all as one unit and for all of us to give our personal best. ... I think that makes a huge difference. It makes it so much better because people play with more heart and more hustle and it really just makes it more fun, which I think makes us perform better.”

“I think it’s nice with the leadership we have a good connection between the coaches and the players,” Nappi said. “So we’re all on the same page which makes it easier for everybody.”

Improving the chemistry will only help communication on the field, Talkow said, and that will help with scoring and finishing plays.

“That’s something we’ve put a big emphasis on this season,” she said. “Sending balls in and being on the post and the stroke, being in the proper positions and with the proper footwork to hit them in. We worked really hard on that. Also, working as a team and making sure team chemistry is good, and that means communication both on the field and off the field so we can be on track as a team.”

One point of uncertainty heading into preseason was who would replace last year’s goaltender, Hannah Gross, but that was settled when junior GiGi Jacobson stepped in. According to both Nappi and Talkow, Jacobson has performed admirably despite never having played goalie before.

“[Jacobson] was a defender in the past so she has a defensive mindset,” Nappi said. “She has really good instincts. She volunteered to play goalie, took it upon herself to work on the offseason.”

“One of the biggest hurdles was coming in with that uncertainty, who was going to fill that goalie position since in field hockey that is one of the most crucial roles especially on plays like corners,” Talkow said. “GiGi has really stepped up and done a phenomenal job.”

Talkow said the new Cougar goalie looks like she has always been a goalie, and that Jacobson has really stepped up both physically and verbally in net.

“Our biggest goal is to work together as a team and go from that and really listen to her,” Talkow said.

Luckily, Jacobson can rely on a solid defense as she continues to learn the position. All of the starters on defense are returning veterans, save one spot where Garrubbo would play (she is currently injured).

A veteran line on defense is something any goalie will benefit from, especially one new to the position.

While there are plenty of veteran players, Nappi says competition is wide open for many positions. Opportunity is there for the taking.

“To us it doesn’t matter [about the grade]. We had a bunch of freshmen last year who started for us and played. It’s probably going to be the same way this year.”

Nappi has been using scrimmages to see who can and will step up.

“We start off with our ‘starting lineup’ and we give everybody a chance to get in there. So we never have a set lineup, anybody could move up this season and take a spot.”

What Nappi has discovered by doing this is how much talent, depth and leadership she has on the roster and how hard they are willing to work.

“There’s not just those one or two specific people, there really is a lot of people taking the lead and taking the reins no matter what class they’re in.”

For the coach, having everyone on the team feel comfortable with showing leadership skills sets this team apart from past years.

“I think as long as they stay comfortable with each other, working hard and in unison, as they have been since day one,” Nappi said, “as long as that stays consistent throughout the season then we’re going to be golden.”