'No one thought it was real:' Owings Mills field hockey team earns first win in nearly five years

For The Baltimore Sun

As the clock wound down on their season opener, some members of the Owings Mills field hockey team screamed while others broke into tears. Most needed a moment to comprehend what just happened.

"Everyone thought they were dreaming," senior Jennifer Nguyen said. "No one thought it was real."

You can excuse the players if they were uncertain how to react after their 8-0 victory at Chesapeake of Baltimore County. It marked their first win in nearly five years, ending an agonizing stretch that began after a 5-4 win at Woodlawn on Oct. 8, 2012, and paving the way for a most unexpected 3-1 start.

Few could've predicted the sudden success.

The team, now 3-2, disbanded in 2013 because of a lack of players, and has primarily played short-handed ever since, often taking the field down one or two — or even as many as four — players.

Fearing the program might again go dormant, Maureen Buckley, a former player at Mount Hebron in the mid-1980s, volunteered to serve as an assistant last season before taking the head coaching job this fall.

Even she had difficulty grasping the enormity of her team’s long-awaited taste of success.

"I don't think they even knew what it felt like [to win], and I don't know if I understood that it was such a hard thing for them," Buckley said. "They were in tears. I knew we hadn't had a successful program in a while, but I don't think that I even appreciated how long that really was, or what it felt like for them to come out every single day, work as a team and try to keep motivated. They've done a really good job of staying positive despite an awful lot of road blocks."

General apathy has been road block No. 1.

Years of losing has kept many of the school's better athletes from trying out for a team that seldom, if ever, gets a taste of glory. On most days, the roster is so thin that starters must play the entire game without a substitute, also covering extra ground because of the lack of a healthy center-midfielder.

And with a dearth of nearby feeder programs, most of those who do want to play never pick up a stick until high school, forcing coaches to focus on the basics. Instead of working on complex offensive schemes, they build practices around dribbling, passing and conditioning.

"Last season was just one really long practice," sophomore Jillian Krinsky said. "A lot of us were freshmen or just new to the sport."

Fighting to keep their program alive, players have taken to the school hallways and cafeteria in a bid to recruit fellow students, frequently talking up the merits of the sport to freshmen. Many of them have never heard of field hockey, much less played it.

"We tell them that we're very close and very accepting, and we don't care about skill levels," senior Nicole McMinney said. "You can learn whatever you need to learn in order to be a part of it. When I leave, I don't want the program to just slowly deteriorate down. I've watched it grow for so many years that it's a part of me."

This season's squad began to take shape four years ago, when players led by then-senior Amanda Tracey, a forward who went on to play at Division III Frostburg State, helped bring aboard several freshmen. Last year, as juniors, those same players managed to sign up a handful of energetic newcomers.

Now, with a full season under their belts, the seniors and sophomores — who represent nine of the team's 11 players — have begun to click.

"For some reason, the girls just really bonded, because everybody just really wanted to be a team," Buckley said. "We had the whole team returning, so I think that gave them a sense of security and positive momentum."

That momentum was on full display in this year's season-opener, when the Eagles jumped on Chesapeake to build an early three-goal lead, then cruised the rest of the way for the team's most dominant performance in years.

"I waited four years [for the win]," Nguyen said. "It's the best wish we could've hoped for."

After a loss to Carver, they posted back-to-back shutouts over Kenwood, giving them three shutouts in their first four games. By comparison, Owings Mills had lost to the Bluebirds each of the past three seasons, by a combined 14-0.

"That barrier is gone of thinking that it's impossible," Buckley said. "They just wanted one win their senior year, and now they're like, ‘Wait a minute. We want more than that.’ They go into the games a lot more excited."

Dreams now have expanded to include a winning record, or even a win or two in the postseason.

"I think it took winning our first game to know that we're actually capable of winning more, and that makes us want to work harder," sophomore Becca Kiewe said. "When you have a losing record, it's like, ‘Oh yeah, this is just another game that we're going to lose.’ But now that we know that we are capable of winning a game, we fight even harder. We practice harder and our mindsets are different."

Nobody's handing the Eagles a trophy just yet. Players know they still face an uphill battle against several more-established opponents with more experience.

For now, though, they gladly will savor every moment.

"We use to be known as the team of, ‘We're playing Owings Mills. We're going to beat them,’ ” Krinsky said. "But now, we're really giving them a run for their money."

"At school, people would say, ‘Field hockey's bad, they never win.' But then we got to prove them wrong," Kiewe said. "We got to be on the announcements, and we got to come back and tell them we won for the first time in a while. It felt really good."

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