As they ambled down the dirt path, they heard a familiar sound — click, clack, click, smack . . . thunk.

A senior a year ago, Emily Gibson was already on the field with a ball, dribbling back and forth and occasionally plunking the back of the cage, waiting for a new group of varsity players to join her.

The fiery redhead won’t be around much longer — she’ll play field hockey beginning this fall at Bates College in Lewiston — but she was back at Poland for the first day of practice anyway, and on the field before any of her former teammates.

One of nearly a dozen seniors on last year’s roster, Gibson was part of one of the school’s most successful field hockey seasons ever. With the winning culture in place and a pipeline of younger talent established, coach Amy Hediger is hoping that even in a year without many seniors, the Knights will keep climbing.

“We are a young team, very young, after last year,” Hediger said. “We have five upperclassmen, and 20 underclassmen. We dealt with that in our team meeting this morning, as to what are the doubters going to say about us, what are other coaches going to say about us when they see the roster. We talked about, what do we need to do; even when you are a first-year player, what can you bring to the program; what will help progress us to the point we can win games and get to the playoffs. That’s always going to be in our structure.”

Even with so many seniors a year ago, many of the team’s younger players found a niche on the squad. That alone will help the team try to replicate last year’s 9-5 regular-season record.

“Coming from last season, it’s a good perspective, because you know what’s necessary to get there,” senior Carly King said. “This year we’re really going to focus on building up our skill and our strength as a team so we can get back to where we were last year.”

King is one of just two seniors on this year’s roster.

But that means little, given the team’s depth at the younger levels.

“Our first-year players now, they’ve been playing since third and fourth grade,” Hediger said. “Our middle school team, I think they lost one game last year. And you have our sophomores who — we made playoffs last year and they had various roles. So we’re young, but there’s a competitiveness to those players.”

Still, getting to know one another again is a task Hediger doesn’t take lightly.

“That’s one of the big reasons we start with a team meeting,” Hediger said. “You don’t want to come out here, you don’t know each others’ names, you don’t know what’s expected and you don’t really laugh together or anything, because you’re just hoping you don’t die. Having that team meeting, there’s laughter and silliness involved, there’s the goal-setting piece, and it allows them to build a relationship even before we step on the field.”

It showed during the team’s first set of drills. Some players knocked over cones, some tripped over a rope ladder being used for quick-step drills, and some collided while weaving in and out of cones as they were more intent on not falling than on where their teammates were. In each case, they laughed. Coming together as a team, as a family, started early.

“We definitely all know each other. Now it’s playing at the next level up together that we have to work on,” King said. “That’s the focus.

“(Playing as a team and with pride) might be the most important thing,” King said. “That’s what makes the season, is having a good family. And that’s what we call it. We’re a family. If you don’t have a good attitude or perspective, you’re not going to be successful or enjoy it. It’s off to a good start, we’re all excited and ready to get back on the field,” King said. “There’s a good energy.”

Going in the right direction

About a dozen miles south, just over Shaker Hill, the Knights’ fellow Western Maine Conference foe, Gray-New Gloucester, swarmed its field. More than two dozen players pushed the ball back and forth, graduating to long pushes, to drives and to reverse stick shots. New coach Christa Roddy supervised the Patriots’ efforts. In recent years, neighboring Poland’s program has taken off. Roddy said she sees the potential to do with Gray-New Gloucester’s program what Hediger and the Knights have done.

“We’ve been pushing a lot with our youth league, getting girls active in the sport earlier,” Roddy said. “We want to get our name out there. As we visit summer games, and play in them, we’ve had officials and other coaches say, ‘Hey, I see how far you’ve come the past couple of years, or even the past couple of weeks.’ We’re looking for that, getting our name out there.”

To that end, the Patriots’ numbers are up as well.

“We’ve stepped up in numbers, girls are excited to be here,” Roddy said. “They’re not coming in as freshmen never having played; they’re coming in with a love for the game, and that’s huge.”

Climbing the mountain

Elsewhere in western Maine, teams from the Mountain Valley Conference started ramping up as well. Lisbon and Oak Hill were the class of the league a year ago with senior-laden squads. After a horrendous start, though, Dirigo started to apply pressure later in the campaign, and Winthrop’s youth started to shine through.

Both of those teams spent a lot of the summer working among themselves, working to make the players on their respective teams better.

“We spent a lot of time together this summer, and the girls have kept that connection through Facebook and other things,” Dirigo coach Gretchen Errington said. “They really get along outside of field hockey, too, so they’re pretty close.”

In addition to running or motivating one another, the Cougars have played well together, too.

“This year, just seeing them this summer and seeing what they can do, I am hoping we can overcome (our slow starts),” Errington said. “We have a lot of speed. We have some younger kids who have to become starting varsity players, which will be good for them. I’m hoping they can finish.

“I don’t want to jinx myself,” Errington added. “I hope we can pull it together and have a great year. We’ve been one of those teams that starts out slow and peaks toward the end. Hopefully we can start out higher this year and get a few wins before we’re 0-6 and have to do all that backtracking.”

Winthrop’s younger team from a year ago is still young, with another influx of talented freshman making competition for starting positions tight.

“I’ve got some great young talent, which in turn is pushing the upperclassmen to work harder,” Winthrop coach Jessica Merrill said. “With a year of experience under them and the addition of the new freshmen, we are already more confident, and competition for spots is intense.”

Field hockey teams can first play countable games on Wednesday, Sept. 2. Dirigo and Winthrop will square off in their mutual season opener on that date. Poland opens at Class B state champion York, while Gray-New Gloucester travels to Kennebunk.