Jaywalking: Young Warriors come of age

  • Mohawk's Ashley Walker (10) tracks down the ball in the first half of a 2-1 win over defending WMass champion Greenfield this season in Shelburne Falls. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Mohawk head coach Lynn Hoeppner, center with sun glasses, talks with her team at half time during their win against Turners Falls a couple of weeks ago in Shelburne Falls. RECORDER file photo/DAN LITTLE

Monday, October 02, 2017

Opposing teams, fans and even school buses should take notice of the Mohawk Trail Regional High School field hockey team.

It’s safe to say that entering the 2017 fall high school sports season, field hockey fans felt like Franklin County had one or two teams very capable of winning a WMass title. The two front-runners in the conversation were defending WMass champs Greenfield High School, and defending runners-up Frontier Regional School, both of whom welcomed back good numbers from a season ago.

No one thought Mohawk Trail Regional High School would be in the conversation. And that’s not a knock on this year’s team. After going 5-11-2 last season and graduating a large group of seniors, the Warriors just were not expected to be in the upper echelon of teams. But here we are a month into the season and Mohawk has yet to lose a game. At 7-0-1 the Warriors are tied with Holyoke High School atop the Bi-County League standings. Those seven wins include a victory over Greenfield, a team that didn’t lose last season until the state semifinals.

Even head coach Lynn Hoeppner said she has been surprised, and if you had told her that her team would be unbeaten into October, she would not have believed it.

“I probably would have laughed,” she said. “But I’m thrilled the way they are playing.”

The success has others taking notice, including school bus-drivers, who will no longer make the mistake of parking behind the goal that Mohawk is shooting at. Two years ago, current senior Ashley Walker was doing a drill when she fired a shot wide of the goal that not only struck and broke the window of the bus parked along the fence behind it, it was actually the bus that Walker took to school, and was the window of the seat her brother routinely sat in.

“It was the first time I had ever seen that,” Mohawk coach Lynn Hoeppner said.

It happened again this season, when the team was again doing drills in practice and another errant shot ended up breaking a bus window from an opposing team. While that shot may have missed the net, plenty of the Warriors’ shots have found their target this fall, and a team not initially thought to be contender is right in the thick of things as the tournament field begins to take shape.

It’s all very nice for a team that nearly did not have a coach. Hoeppner had coached Mohawk for 16 years before retiring prior to last fall. Hoeppner had a number of reasons to walk away. Not only was she focusing on her field hockey club, Element, she was also the healthcare proxy for her mother, as well as helping her husband battle cancer and go through a stem-cell transplant.

After one season, Mohawk was again looking for a field hockey coach this season and administrators had reached out to Hoeppner for help finding someone.

“That program is a part of me, and not just because of what I’ve invested, but because of what I have received from them,” she said. “A great bunch of kids have gone through that program.”

The school initially hired someone to fill the coaching void but a week before the preseason started, the unnamed man took a job as a full-time professor and was unable to make the coaching job work. When that fell through, Hoeppner said she had a hard decision to make.

“I told my husband, ‘I think I need to go back,’ and he said, ‘I never wanted you to leave in the first place. Then my mother said the same thing,” Hoeppner said of her decision to return.

The team she inherited was facing turnover after what had been a difficult 2016 season, but one thing Hoeppner had was a pair of captains — senior Ashley Walker and junior Shelby Sinistore — who put in time and effort to bring the team together over the summer, even as they waited patiently to find out who was going to coach them in the fall.

“I think one thing we really focused on in captains practice was team bonding,” senior Ashley Walker said.

“We truly are a family,” Sinistore added.

Walker said that with all the turnover this season, the team had a number of newcomers, which prompted them to focus on uniting the team over the summer.

“We did a lot of team bonding. I would say 50 percent of our captains’ practices were team bonding,” Walker explained. “We would run to the river and swim and do other different team-building activities.

“A lot of the younger girls came to captains practice,” Walker continued. “They showed a lot of commitment and dedication and a passion for the sport. I’m really impressed by them and they are going to be really great.”

Hoeppner said that when she came back she told her players two things. The first, was that she told them how much she respected them, and secondly, she told them she wanted them to do the best they could while also having fun.

“If we negate the high school experience, we’re not doing anyone any favors,” Hoeppner said. “When I first started coaching (Mohawk cross country and track coach) Joe Chadwick said to me, ‘Look back and remember what it was like to be 15, 16, 17 years old and put things into that perspective.’ It was the best advice I’ve ever been given as a coach and something that I hold onto wholeheartedly.”

It still doesn’t add up to a winning season. That is on the players. And after battling some early-season nerves, the team is now playing with confidence. It wasn’t always that way. Prior to the game with Greenfield, Walker and Sinistore said one player on the team had a panic-attack, and Hoeppner said the players were talking about how Greenfield was better than them.

“We sat in the huddle and we talked about the fact that if we don’t believe in ourselves, then everyone is going to think they are better than we are,” the coach explained. “When you are playing a team like Greenfield, 50 percent of it is in your head, and 50 percent of it is in your heart. We said, ‘Let’s make it our game,’ and they just started revolving around that.”

Could the real secret to beating Greenfield actually have been something found in a slice of pizza?

“Before the game we went to Buckland Pizza and we carb-loaded and got back here and had a huge pump-up session,” Walker said.

Mohawk then came out and scored the only goal of the first half.

“That first goal got all the nerves out and gave us confidence and made us believe that, ‘Hey, we can beat Greenfield. We can beat the defending western Mass. champs,’” Sinistore said.

The team is not satisfied with just beating Greenfield. The goals are bigger than that. And with that in mind, the team continues to hold team-bonding activities during the season. On Friday night, the team got together at Sinistore’s house and held a sleepover and bonfire, at which time they had a pair of old field hockey sticks from the 1970s that Hoeppner had given them and told to use as kindling. The girls took a picture of the sticks on fire and sent it to Hoeppner, with the caption, “Fire it up,” which is one of the chants the team yells when breaking huddle.

They’ve been firing it up all season. And for the most part — although not always, as in the case of the school bus — those shots have been on target and have led to a successful first month in Buckland.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.