Every season has its surprises and none looks bigger this fall than the resurgence of St. Paul's field hockey team.
The Gators have risen from 3-8-2 a year ago to earn a spot among the top three in the Association of Independent Schools A Division. Ranked No. 10 -- and moving up -- the Gators are 6-0-2 after beating Maryvale, 1-0, Friday.
The combination of enthusiastic new coach Eileen Alban, a talented young team and a few season-opening romps sparked a new beginning and has the Gators aiming for the A Division tournament title. Last year, they were eliminated in the first round.
"We have nothing to lose," said junior forward Libby Hoyle, adding that the Gators vowed to leave last year far behind.
"We wanted to start over and I think that's what we've done. Every time we go into a game, we've gained a lot more confidence."
Their early schedule certainly helped boost the Gators' confidence quickly. Opening with three B Division teams, the Gators won by a combined score of 22-0.
"Last year, we really had trouble scoring," said center midfielder Sarah Oglesby. "We had maybe five goals the whole season. We had the team; we just didn't have goals. This year we have them, and those 8-0 games really helped."
Alban might be one reason behind the new-found offensive kick, simply because she coaches a more offensive game plan. At Roland Park and Virginia, Alban played an attack-minded midfield position; last year's coach Sandy Hoody, a former goalkeeper, had a more defensive outlook.
But Alban said the real trick was getting the players to believe in themselves -- and that began way back in preseason workouts.
"The only thing I've tried to do is develop a winning atmosphere," said Alban. "We're so well-balanced. I don't really think there's a weakness on the field."
Even when the Gators met their first ranked opponents, there was no letdown. They started their climb into the Top 10 with wins over then-No. 9 Severn, 3-1, and then-No. 7 Friends, 3-2.
"Severn was really our game," said Hoyle, joined on a speedy line by Mills Hook, Michelle Wachter and Hilary Polk-Williams. "We had to prove ourselves -- to ourselves not just to everyone else. We had to show ourselves that we can score against better teams."
But the Gators probably proved even more in scoreless ties with No. 5 Bryn Mawr and No. 6 Garrison Forest, last year's A Division tournament finalists.
Micul Ann Morse, coach of defending champ Garrison and All-Metro Co-Coach of the Year, saw a huge difference on the field.
"They play good hockey. Their stickwork is excellent, but they're also playing with enthusiasm," said Morse. "They're out there with a sense of purpose."
While the offense has picked up, the defense has never dropped off. Senior defenders Nikki Satyshur, Alyson Bowyer, Krissa McBride and keeper Gretchen Goldberg, with some help from midfielders Oglesby, Lexie Rich and Allison Polk-Williams, have allowed just three goals.
Off the field, the Gators have developed a new cohesion as well. Alban started a new tradition of team dinners that have brought out common goals in a team that includes starters from every class.
"I think it's the chemistry of the team as much as anything," said Hook. "We're all such good friends. We're all real spirited. . . . and we have the intensity, the drive to win. It's the excitement -- the thrill just to win is so different."