Poland Regional High School field hockey captains, from left, Desiree Menard, Higera Nawass and Morgan Brousseau have helped the Knights to a No. 3 seed in the Class B South playoffs.
POLAND — Led by its captains, the Poland Regional High School field hockey team turned a pair of laps around the pitch behind the high school on an unseasonably warm fall afternoon. The trees beyond the fence line had turned to crimson, amber and auburn, but the sun beating down on the team hearkened more to an August two-a-day than to playoff preparations.
No matter to the line of players, who to a person remained jovial. The bounce in their steps was visible, and the sounds of laughter — yes, laughter — carried across the complex.
“We’ll do conditioning practices, and they’ll just be smiling while doing it,” first-year head coach Kayla Royer said. “They want to be here because they want to be here, no one is forcing them. They just want to play.”
That atmosphere, and the quality players it has helped to attract, have Poland positioned in the top half of the final Class B South standings for the first time. The No. 3-seeded Knights will host a quarterfinal round contest Wednesday.
Building to this season
The school itself was only born in 1999, and it took a few years for all of the athletic teams to find their footing. Sports that often require a strong youth program had to develop more slowly.
When former coach Amy Hediger took over the program in the mid-2000s, she wanted to build a foundation on which the program could stand for a long time. Slowly, the Knights built. In 2014, when this year’s senior class was a group of freshmen, a senior-led team earned for Poland its first playoff berth in at least 10 seasons, as the No. 6 seed in what was then Class B West.
“Their role was to make the seniors better,” Hediger remembered. “They embraced that. They knew that was what they had to do for the team.”
“Freshman year, there was a big senior class that we all looked up to,” senior captain Morgan Brousseau said. “That molded us. We were the next-biggest class and we wanted to lead at some point.”
That team lost in a quarterfinal matchup against Spruce Mountain.
But their time was coming.
The following season, with only one senior and two juniors, Poland struggled a bit. Everyone in the program knew it was coming. They missed the playoffs.
“It was mostly getting to know each other, working on things we needed to work on the most,” senior captain Desiree Wante said. “Responding as a team.”
“They were finding their way as sophomores,” Hediger agreed. “We missed the playoffs that year, but we could see what we had in front of us.”
Last year, the Knights rebounded. They won nine regular-season games, went into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed, and hosted No. 10 Greely — another younger, up-and-coming team — in their first home playoff game.
And the Knights won.
“Last year was a stellar season,” Hediger said. “We had nine wins, had our first home game in the playoffs, and won our first playoff game. We knew what we had coming back was a strong group, too, losing only Sadie Archer, who’s now playing at Rivier College. We knew we weren’t in for another rebuilding year this year.”
Poland lost to Kennebunk in the quarterfinal round, and then also lost Hediger, who resigned as coach when she took a position as a curriculum director for RSU 16. It was bittersweet for Hediger, but she also know the team would be just fine.
“That’s part of the legacy we’ve looked to adopt at Poland field hockey, to always leave the program better than when you found it,” Hediger said. “It’s a legacy of, you ‘get’ to be here, you don’t ‘have’ to be here; that element of, ‘You can do it, and if you can’t, let us help you get there so you can.’ It’s a great family.”
That family mentality has helped this Knights team remain strong under Royer, a standout player in her own right at Leavitt Area High School in Turner, as well as at St. Joseph’s College in Standish and at Husson University in Bangor.
“I took this job because field hockey is just a habit I can’t break,” Royer said.
And the team has responded in kind.
“They work together,” Royer said. “There’s not really one person who carries the team on her back, they work as a team. There’s no one who’s bringing the ball up and down the field by themselves.”
“This year, we’re on the same page more often,” Brousseau said. “Last year, we struggled with coming together at important times. It was the pressure. This year, we’re more experienced.”
“We know each other so well, now, we know how each other plays,” Wante added.
Still, despite veteran leadership at every turn on the field, the Knights season began slowly, with losses in three of the first four games on the slate — to Yarmouth, York and St. Dominic Academy.
“Those first games were all against strong teams, and we may not have come out with a win, but every single time, at halftime, coach would tell us, ‘Let them know what Poland field hockey is all about,'” Brousseau said.
“We’ve done that,” Wante interjected.
“We’ve tried to send a message to the conference that we can compete, and we’re excited to keep going,” Brousseau said.
Since that 1-3 start, Poland has reeled off wins over nine of 10 opponents, including a revenge victory over second-seeded Yarmouth in the regular-season finale and a win over No. 6 Greely — the Knights’ familiar quarterfinal opponent.
Royer believes the team’s unselfish play and talent-rich depth will be key to advancing.
“When we play other teams and they try to shut one person down, it’s really not effective against us, because we have so many people who can step up,” Royer said.
During goal-setting time at the beginning of the season, Royer was careful at first not to push too much on the team.
But, “seeing them practice in preseason, seeing them all summer, they kind of set the tone in the preseason that they wanted to go,” Royer said, “and that’s what they’re doing right now.”
“If you never talk about (going to the state game), you get scared of it,” Hediger said. “Or you don’t think it’s in reach. You have to shoot for that goal. That’s the ultimate goal.”
As the No. 3 seed in the Class B South bracket, the Knights are in the right position.
“Now it’s like every moment we have on the field could be the last one,” Brousseau said. “Now as seniors, we’re all like, ‘OK, let’s go get it.'”
And they’ll likely all do it with smile — or a laugh.
Poland Regional High School’s Morgan Brousseau, left, fires the ball toward the Greely cage as Greely’s Elizabeth Brown jumps out of the way during their playoff game in Poland last fall.
Poland Regional High School’s Higera Nawass, right, carries the ball past Greely High School’s Maddy Perfetti during the teams’ Class B South playoff matchup in Poland last fall.
Poland Regional High School’s Desiree Menard, left, sends the ball up the field in front of Greely High School’s Ella Novick during the teams’ playoff matchup in Poland last fall.