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Sacred Heart field hockey enjoying first season as a varsity team

Sacred Heart Academy field hockey teammates, from left,

Sacred Heart Academy field hockey teammates, from left, Erin Batting, Sophia Guzzo and Annie Raleigh warm up at the start of practice  on Oct. 2, 2019. Credit: James Escher

There’s always some chatter during Sacred Heart Academy’s field hockey practices.

It’s part instruction, a hint of competition and the excitement that comes from something brand new, because after years of offering field hockey as a club sport, the Spartans fielded their first varsity team this fall, suiting up for a non-league schedule. Sacred Heart is the only Catholic League school on Long Island with a varsity field hockey team.

“I was thrilled it was happening,” said senior defender Annie Raleigh. “It’s fun competing against all these schools and everyone is so good.”

The decision to transition from club to varsity came, coach Courtney O’Brien said, after working with the team last year and seeing the interest. O’Brien and Sacred Heart administration believed the squad could take the next step and, once the season ended, she reached out to other Nassau County athletic directors and coaches to schedule possible games.

“If I didn’t hear back from the ADs, I’d email the coaches directly and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing, we’d love a match, the girls are just dying for the opportunity to get on the field and put a jersey on,’” O’Brien said.

It didn’t take long for a response, and after tryouts in August, Sacred Heart fielded a team of 29 players.

“With the combination of interest, talent and great coaching, we were able to make that jump [to varsity] faster than expected,” athletic director Morgan O’Connor said, adding that there weren’t many hurdles to starting the team.

There won’t be a postseason for the Spartans since they play a non-league schedule only. Still, enthusiasm hasn’t ebbed.

“A lot of the girls wanted a team,” said sophomore midfielder Mia Takvor. “This year it’s more serious, more practices and we’re improving.”

Sacred Heart has played teams such as Cold Spring Harbor, Manhasset and and three-time defending Long Island Class C champion Carle Place. O’Brien said she’s been nothing but proud of her Spartans (1-3), who picked up their first win on Sept. 10, defeating Great Neck North, 8-0.

“Regardless of the score, they walk off the field with a smile on their faces,” said O’Brien, who grew up in Virginia. “I told the girls, that’s all I ask, that you’re enjoying it and learning something.”

Learning has been at the heart of Sacred Heart’s season.

Some players came in with experience, playing club or at previous schools, but there also were some who had never picked up a field hockey stick. It’s forced the team to shift between explaining the game and playing it, as O’Brien and assistant coach Cindy Russell, a Rocky Point grad who played collegiately at LIU, work with players on where to position themselves, how to attack the goal or defend an opposing rush.

Still, sophomore forward Kayla Lloyd said the mindset has helped the group bond, learning the sport and fine-tuning their skills together.

“It’s all supportive,” Lloyd added. “It’s ‘Go here’ or ‘Do this,’ and showing us how it works instead of telling us what we’re doing wrong.”

“I love coming to practice,” O’Brien added. “I’ve been blessed to have a great group of girls that are excited for the opportunity.”

Now, Sacred Heart is looking to the future.

O’Brien said there’s been talk of a JV team. O’Connor added that although she doesn’t see NSCHSAA sponsoring field hockey soon, she hopes the Spartans can add to their schedule. The key for Sacred Heart, O’Connor said, is continuing to offer athletes the chance to play, particularly at an all-girls high school.

“Philosophically it’s important to me, as the athletic director at this all-girls institution, that we offer sports that cater to females,” O’Connor said. “If we’re not offering field hockey, I’m not sure who else would.”

For this year’s team, the opportunity to compete has been an unforgettable experience and one they’re hoping other players seize.

“I hope it encourages other girls to play,” Lloyd said. “We’ve all grown so much.”

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