Laurie (Flagg) Ignacio, center, gets a hug from current Winthrop goalies, Aiva Agri, left and Alicia Bridges during a halftime celebration to honor the 1998 state field hockey champions. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

WINTHROP — On Sept. 21, 13 former Winthrop field hockey players gathered at the high school for a reunion of the 1988 Class C state championship field hockey team.

The 2018 Winthrop field hockey team honored the team at halftime of a game against Telstar, with current Ramblers assistant coach and 1988 Ramblers head coach, Sharon Coulton, linking 30 years of team history.

Coulton was the reason the 1988 Ramblers came from as far away as Germany to remember the school’s first state title run and root the 2018 Ramblers on in their quest for another championship, 1988 goaltender and senior co-captain Nicole Caprara said.

“It wasn’t because of a game that all of these ladies are here,” Caprara said. “It’s because of a common thread from a teacher and coach. She was really a strong mentor in each one of our lives.”

One year before, the Ramblers went 4-8-2 and didn’t make the playoffs for the first time in six years. A large sophomore class did gain valuable varsity experience, though, and combined with strong leadership from Coulton (then Sharon Beaudoin) and the team’s four seniors to put together an unbeaten season and started a memorable run that would ultimately result in back-to-back state titles.

“It was really critical that they had that experience,” Coulton said, “because back then we didn’t have a middle school team and the girls didn’t have the opportunities outside of school to play and improve.”

Coulton had a large roster, 18 on the varsity, another 20 on the junior varsity, dominated by a large junior class of 15. 

“All of the articles talk about the sense of teamwork,” Caparara said. “There was a lot of respect, a lot of camaraderie, and playing to people’s strengths that I don’t know if it was in place the year before. Everyone started to mature into their roles.”

The 1988 Ramblers were strong front to back. Caprara was a wall in the cage. Senior links and co-captains Cheryl Heathcote, Stacy Burnham and Jen Swanson controlled the territory in front of her along with sweeper Shellee Clement, while Darcey Heikkinen led the midfielders providing support at both ends. Diane Blanchard, who led the team in scoring the year before, joined twins Ethel and Anna Struck at forward. 

“We were a well-rounded team,” said Laurie (Flagg) Inacio, a junior at the time and Caprara’s backup. “We had strong players at every position. There was always a sense (in the cage) that I wasn’t in there alone.”

Coulton was an assistant coach on Winthrop’s girls’ track team, and there was a lot of overlap between the two teams. The trio on the front line, Blanchard and the Struck sisters, were standout sprinters in the spring.

“We had a lot of team speed and that opens the game up,”  Stacy (Burnham) Bourne said.

“Speed was critical,” Coulton said. “It was more of a linear game then. You couldn’t try and go backward because it was considered an obstruction. You had to go forward.”

Team chemistry moved forward with the senior captains ensuring a team-oriented and friendly atmosphere.

“Looking back at the photos when we all played, many of us had long hair and everybody’s doing someone’s hair, like on the bench, or before or after games or while waiting for something,” Jen (Swanson) Dexter said. “Maybe that’s typical girl high school stuff, but you look at those pictures and you never see anyone away from the bench or away from the team.”

Coulton set the tone by showing appreciation for each player’s contributions to the team, regardless of their role. 

“There was always some type of recognition after every game,” Jen (Swanson) Dexter said.

Usually, the recognition came in the form of colorful “little buddies” that Coulton would hand out to deserving players. 

“They were little round stickers, file dots,” Bourne said. “If you got an assist, it was a half a buddy, and you lined them up on your stick .”

Goal scorers received a green sticker. The offensive player of the game received a yellow sticker and the defensive player of the game got a red sticker. Any outstanding individual defensive plays earned the author of that play a blue sticker. 

“It was fun to hand them out after a successful game. Even if you didn’t have a successful game you could still have an MVP and make it positive,” Coulton said.

Coulton tried to get the Ramblers into a positive frame of mind before games, too.

“We did a lot of meditation, a lot of visualization, like, ‘Visualize yourself scoring. Visualize yourself playing your role,'” Bourne said. “She was really into that.”

“The day before we’d all lay in the library and do this,” Dexter said. “You’d fall asleep sometimes.”

Coulton recalled using the group meditation sessions a few times, including in the gymnasium of host Maine Central Institute before the state championship game.

“It was this new technique to get the players thinking about playing well,” she said.

The Ramblers rarely fell asleep on the field. The only blemish on their 17-0-1 record was a scoreless tie with Leavitt. 

“After that game, a couple of girls came over and basically apologized for not scoring and promised it wouldn’t happen again,” Coulton said, “and it didn’t.”

The Ramblers didn’t have to score a bunch, though, with 12 shutouts on the season.

The second seed in the Class C East tournament behind Orono, Winthrop allowed only one goal in the regional playoffs, which came in a 3-1 quarterfinal win over rival Jay. The Ramblers blanked Piscataquis, 1-0, in the semifinals, then won their first regional title in a decade with a 1-0 shutout over Georges Valley.

Awaiting them in the state championship was Yarmouth, which was coming off back-t0-back upsets in the Western Maine tournament, an overtime triumph over second-seeded Dirigo in the semifinals and a double-overtime victory over top-seeded Freeport for its first  regional title.

“It was a well-matched game,” Caprara said. “The score was really low.”

For a time, it appeared the Ramblers wouldn’t even give the Clippers an opportunity to score. Yarmouth crossed midfield once in the entire first half.

The Ramblers grabbed the lead 20 minutes into the game off of a penalty corner. Burnham passed to the top of the circle to Heikkinen, who fired a hard shot that deflected off of Yarmouth player and into the the lower left corner of the cage.

Less than four minutes into the second half, Blanchard, who scored 11 goals during the season but had been shut out in the regional playoffs, made it 2-0 with a goal off a cross from Anna Struck.

“It was such a pretty pass by Anna. She came down and could have taken the shot but she made a great pass to Diane,” Coulton said. “It’s one of those things you love to see on a team, where a player knows it’s about the team’s success.”

Blanchard had another goal that would have made it 3-0 disallowed a short time later. That opened the door for Yarmouth to make it 2-1 with a goal by Joanne LaCroix with nine excruciating minutes left.

“It was 30 years ago … but I’m sure I was watching the clock,” Coulton said.

The Ramblers didn’t allow the Clippers another shot to secure the title, 2-1.

“It was a new and exciting experience,” Coulton said. “Nobody expected it. Everything was a plus. We had never gone that far in the tournament.”

Winthrop returned 15 seniors the following year and lost just twice during the regular season en route to another title with a 1-0 overtime win over Telstar.

Graduating only the four seniors, those Ramblers had to deal with the weight of expectations. But they welcomed the challenge. Inacio, who was the starting goaltender on the 1989 championship team, said the 1988 title made the underclassmen hungry for more. 

“It was a first experience of feeling like I was part of something that was bigger than myself,” Inacio said. “We were all working together to a common goal. We were all working very hard. We were all in it together.”

Jacket worn by members of Winthrop’s back-to-back state field hockey championship teams of 1988 and 1989.

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