Winthrop High School field hockey coach Jessica Merrill talks to her team during practice at the high school on Wednesday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

WINTHROP — The Winthrop Ramblers ended the 2019 season dejected that they were walking off the field with a loss to unbeaten Foxcroft Academy in the Class C state field hockey championship, but they also were also taking solace in the fact that nearly the entire team would be back in the fall of 2020, led by a large senior class that would be looking to play in a fourth consecutive state title game.

The next 10 months, though, taught the Ramblers nothing can be taken for granted. And they are determined to apply those lessons in what will be a most unusual season due to circumstances surrounding COVID-19.

This season, the Ramblers will play only four games, two each against Mountain Valley Conference rivals Oak Hill and Hall-Dale. Winthrop’s scheduling options were limited due to a smaller pool of available opponents and by many of the available schools filling their schedules before Winthrop decided to move forward with fall sports.

With the MVC and Maine Principals’ Association eliminating championships for the season, a talented group of nine seniors that played for both the conference and state championships in its first three seasons, winning a state title in 2018, won’t have a chance to add to an unprecedented four-year run.

But instead of wallowing in what could’ve been, the Ramblers are counting their blessings.

“This year is definitely not what we expected,” senior co-captain Kerrigan Anuszewski said. “Life has definitely thrown a curveball at us, and we’ve been trying to adapt and make things happen. As far as what we expected this senior season to be, this isn’t it. But we’re really, really thankful that we even get the chance to go on the field and play together.”

“We’re trying to make the best of a not-so-great situation,” Winthrop coach Jessica Merrill said, “and give the kids something to look forward to.”

When the MPA opened up sports to workouts in July, the Ramblers were already primed for a special season.

“They were ready to go in early July,” Merrill said.

Winthrop High School seniors Kerrigan Anuszewski, left, and Brooklyn Gaghan. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“The girls definitely had some big dreams this year, and rightfully so,” Merrill added. “We graduated one senior (Gia Francis), and I think the girls that remained set the stage for a great year this year. But that’s what happens, I guess. Life happens. I think they’ve done a really good job of adapting to the situation and trying to find the positives in it.”

That wasn’t easy. Players believed if they stayed faithful to the state and MPA’s guidelines they would be rewarded with some sense of normalcy in the fall. Instead, their frustration mounted with postponement after postponement of the fall season

“It’s just been really hard for us to stay positive and stay motivated to work through these times,” Anuszewski said. “But after we found out that there was still hope for us to have a couple of games, at least, our spirits really lifted.”

The Ramblers also gradually realized that every day together sharing their love for field hockey was in itself a victory, senior co-captain Brooklyn Gaghan said.

“We all just love the game itself, so any time we’re able to play it keeps us going and hoping for more,” Gaghan said.

Merrill and assistant coach Sharon Coulton, who won over 300 games as Merrill’s predecessor as Winthrop’s head coach, took advantage of that zeal for the game and competition to work on skill development. They also emphasized that while the seniors won’t be able to lift a trophy at the end of the season, they can still lift the program to new heights.

“A lot of my seniors are helping with the youth (Winthrop’s Saturday youth program) to continue with the tradition that we’ve kind of established that they’ve all been a part of. Their impact goes more than just playing here,” Merrill said. “A bunch of them realize that their impact is going to be for years if they put the time in now, especially with the younger kids.”

“We really looked up to those high-schoolers that came out on Saturdays and helped us,” Anuszewski said, “and we just want to do the same for the next generation of field hockey players in Winthrop.”

To keep things competitive for the current crop of Ramblers, Merrill has organized an “Intrasquad Cup” series where the Ramblers will be divided into two teams and vie for green-and-white bragging rights.

“We’re going to do a best-of-five series,” Merrill said. “I’m coaching one and Sharon’s coaching the other, so that will be fun. That gives the kids some competition.”

Given the Ramblers’ depth of talent, those intrasquad scrimmages might be more competitive than some of the games the Ramblers have played against other schools over the past few years.

Whether they’re playing their teammates or one of their rivals, the Ramblers vow not to hold anything back.

“We always go all out,” Gaghan said, “so I don’t think it will make a difference if it’s a real season or not. We’ll always give our best.”

The seniors believe that if they give their best, they can set their successors on the right path toward continuing their winning ways.

“I think we’ve also been focusing on making sure that the underclassmen are ready to take over next year so they hopefully can hit the ground running and ready to defend some of our titles,” Anuszewski said.

The Ramblers understand that this fall will probably as unpredictable as the summer was, but they feel a responsibility to the underclassmen, their school and their community to keep their heads up.

“I just come here with a positive attitude and do my best and hope for the best,” Gaghan said. “Really, that’s all we can do.”

“Our parents are working really hard behind the scenes to make sure each game is going to feel like our Senior Game,” Anuszewski said. “Coach Merrill and Coach Coulton are working really hard to make sure that we can stay practicing and we can stay safe. I think we’re just really thankful that our administrators and our coaches and our parents are working as hard as they are so that we get to play together and have a season that slightly resembles what it could have been.”

Merrill hopes her team lives in the moment, enjoys its time together and continues learning how to adapt through adversity.

“I hope we just have a blast,” Anuszewski said. “I think the most important thing to us is to have fun, better our program and make sure our field hockey (program) is ready for whatever comes next.”

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