NANTICOKE — The day’s work is done and equipment is being packed. Watercoolers are dumped out, leaving a pile of ice cubes in the grass.
A player walks over to the pile and extends her day’s workout. She tosses a cube in the air, her left hand then joins her right on her “bat” as she literally crushes one with the sweet swing girls from Nanticoke are known for.
Ice goes everywhere. She reaches down for another ice cube and hits another home run. And another. And another.
Finally, a coach tells the player that her practice is over. A field hockey stick isn’t for hitting home runs, anyway.
Nanticoke is known for its championship-caliber softball. And exceptional girls basketball. And stellar girls volleyball.
But field hockey?
“I’ve got to get them into the gym and show them the banners,” Nanticoke coach Lori Dennis said of her team’s knowledge of past Trojans glory. “This group, they are competitive and aggressive. You can’t teach that. They know where they come from and they want to bring the program to the next level.”
It hasn’t been the best of times for Nanticoke in recent years. A 3-12 season in 2011 is the best campaign among the last three, where the Trojans have won just six of 45 games.
But it was just in 2009 when the Trojans won the WVC Division 2 championship with a 9-5-1 record, led by former Old Dominion standout Kati Nearhouse. In 2007, Nanticoke was 13-2 and won another division title with Gabrielle Malischak (Slippery Rock) helping lead the way.
“They like being part of something positive here,” Dennis said of this edition of the Trojans. “They’re out here working hard. They are excellent with each other. They pick each other up, give each other a pat on the back when they need to.”
There’s more going on in Nanticoke than what’s found in the standings. The program has been reborn after losing a couple of large classes and facing the challenge of soccer’s relocation to the fall.
The returning players gained key experience last season — Amber Grohowski scored the winner against district-semifinalist Wyoming Area on a set-up by Carly Grabowski, Becca Morgis set up the winner against Abington Heights, Maddy O’Donahue left the backline to post two shutouts in her first seven games as a goalkeeper.
“Crestwood has 60 come out, and 25 are competing for starting spots,” Dennis said. “I have 30 (come out) and I’m out of my mind. If you can’t get numbers, you can’t compete. We’re like Cinderella. We played with 17 last year and dropped the junior high team. We were able to resurrect it this year.”
Improvement won’t mean a division title this season, but there has been improvement. Nanticoke forced overtime in two of its first three games — against Wyoming Area and Delaware Valley, teams which reached the District 2 semifinals a season ago. Players like Kayla Gronkowski, Savannah Oliver, Sarina Kinlaw, Jennifer Lopez and Liz Colemire, as well as others, have helped the Trojans become more competitive.
“Sam Garvey gives you everything,” Dennis said. “Kara Voyton never played before last year and plays varsity. She’s tough as nails. Our goalie, Maddy O’Donahue, moved there last year and is just a natural. She’s a catcher (in softball) and she’s got all the angles down. You can’t count these girls out until the game’s over.”
In the WVC, competitive is an accomplishment. There’s powerhouse programs everywhere on the schedule — state champion Crestwood, 2011 state champion Wyoming Seminary, Holy Redeemer, Wyoming Valley West, Coughlin, Dallas, Lake-Lehman … well, nearly everyone. Being competitive is the first step into maybe making Nanticoke a field hockey town as well.
“We have the best conference on the East Coast,” Dennis said. “Being a former official, I’ve seen a lot of good teams around the state. These players know that. You play your schedule and you play as hard as you can.”
Around the WVC, could there be a degree of parity coming to the league? The upper echelon of the league remains some of the elite programs in the country. There is a next level, made up of quality teams that are competitive, and then the rest. The early results say more teams are competitve, as there are eight unbeaten teams in early play, but only three winless squads — and they have been in position to earn wins.
Teams not in the national picture are trying to move themselves toward the elite.
“It is evening out more,” Wyoming Area coach Lunda Comiskey said. “The club system is allowing more players to play all year long. Other teams are rising toward the Sems and Crestwoods. Scores are a lot closer this year. When you go outside of district in scrimmages, that’s when you notice just how strong our entire district really is.”
The WVC regular season is scheduled to end Oct. 18. It’s not outrageous to expect to see at least one local team playing on Nov. 16. We’ll keep you posted.