State run extra sweet for Smith

  • Greenfield’s Samantha Smith makes a save during action earlier this fall. The senior goalkeeper has 10 shutouts, guiding the Green Wave into the MIAA Div. 2 title game Saturday against Dennis-Yarmouth. FILE PHOTO/Dan Little

  • Greenfield's Racquel Provost celebrates with goalkeeper Samantha Smith after their state semifinal win over Oakmont Tuesday night. FILE PHOTO/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2018 9:26:37 PM

You’d be hard-pressed to find Samantha Smith without a smile on her face these days.

A third straight WMass Div. 2 field hockey title? Check. Back-to-back shutouts vaulting her team into the Div. 2 state final? Check.

Indeed, the Greenfield High School senior goalkeeper has plenty to be happy about as she prepares to play in Saturday’s MIAA Div. 2 title game against South sectional champion Dennis-Yarmouth. The tilt is set for 1:30 p.m. at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

To truly appreciate Smith’s journey to Worcester, however, you’d have to go back to the Summer of 2017.

It was at an offseason summer softball game where Smith’s athletic career took a bit of a detour. While sliding into a base, she suffered an injury that wound up derailing her junior season to a rather serious degree. In addition to some sprains, she was diagnosed with a fracture as a piece of her kneecap chipped away. As it turned out, the piece was too small to screw back in, meaning it’s still just floating around in her leg. There was no surgery. But a bone bruise prolonged the ordeal, and the prognosis wasn’t encouraging.

“The doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to play for field hockey season,” Smith recalled of the news that she would likely miss the entire 2017 season — her junior year. “They said (winter) basketball might be in the picture. Maybe.”

With the bad news came some trying times for Smith. A three-sport standout, she certainly wasn’t used to just sitting and watching. But that’s how her junior year began. Greenfield head coach Erin Thayer said while it’s never easy for an injured player to transition into a spectator, it was particularly difficult for her goalkeeper.

“Emotionally, she struggled,” Thayer recalled. “She’s not a kid who stands on the sidelines and watches. It was really hard for her to do that. There were times we struggled last year and she was stuck on the sideline.”

Being around the team every day but not able to play? Things could not have been much worse for Smith.

“For me, I didn’t even think field hockey was going to be an option,” she began. “Every day, going to practice, that made it that much more difficult. I’m not going to be able to play. That’s all I kept thinking about.”

As the season progressed, and the anguish reached a boiling point, Smith decided she was going to do whatever it took to get back on the field. So during practice late in the season, she stood up, walked to her coach and informed Thayer of her new plan.

“I just said to Erin, ‘Can I take a lap around the field?’ I stumbled around the field and then the next day, I said ‘I’m going to take two laps around the field,’” Smith recalled. “It just kept going like that, getting bigger and bigger every day until I could do the running workouts with the team.”

From there, Thayer had a tough decision to make.

“It was so hard,” the coach said. “I didn’t want to be that coach. Selfishly, I knew we needed her to win a championship, but I didn’t want to put her in a position where she could reinjure herself. We had a long chat with her and her parents. We all needed to be on the same page. Her mom said, ‘We follow her lead and trust her instincts.’”

Running workouts were one thing. Getting into live action in full equipment? Quite another.

“Erin was a little hesitant to put me in pads because it was such a sensitive spot, especially when I’d be leaning one way,” said Smith. “But I just kept working my way back into it.”

She finally made her debut in the regular-season finale on Oct. 29 against Frontier, coming in for the second half of a 2-2 tie. She led the Wave to WMass tourney wins over Mohawk and then Frontier in the title game. Smith recorded 10 saves in the final, as Greenfield beat the Red Hawks to repeat as Div. 2 champions.

“It was kind of difficult with the outside pressure of everyone telling me just to let it rest,” offered Smith of the late-season return. “But for me, personally, it just about my team. I just knew I had to do it for them. They all counted on me.”

Lizzy Howland filled in admirably during Smith’s absence between the pipes. Thayer said that despite never having played the position, and being relatively new to the sport in general, Howland helped stem the tide throughout the season until Smith, who took over the starting job as an eighth-grader and never gave it up, returned.

“Lizzy got us to where we needed to be,” Thayer said. “When it came time to play the big game, we needed Sam to be back there and get it done.”

It wasn’t an entirely happy ending to Smith’s junior season. Greenfield lost its way just five days after beating Frontier for the WMass crown, when it was soundly defeated by Oakmont, 7-1, in the MIAA Div. 2 semifinals. It was the second year in a row that the Wave had lost in convincing fashion to Oakmont. TA hint of doubt crept back into Smith’s head after allowing seven goals in the disappointing defeat.

“I honestly felt like it was my fault.” she remembered. “I felt so bad. I thought about it for so long. There were times after the season where I thought, ‘Did I make the wrong decision in coming back so soon?’ But I tried to be there for my team and they were there for me when I needed them. They all reassured me. Everyone was great about it.”

Fast-forward through big seasons on the hardwood (WMass semifinal appearance) and the softball diamond (WMass championship), and Smith was healthy and motivated for her impending senior season when fall practice opened in August. Thayer fully expected the old Sam between the pipes.

“For her to be there this year ready to play, I knew she was going to have a monster year,” said Thayer. “She was going to put 100-percent into everything she did, especially for her senior season.”

Smith has amassed 138 saves, 10 shutouts and a .879 save percentage. Most importantly, she’s stepped it up in crunch time. Opponents have scored just one goal against her in the postseason, as she’s pitched shutouts in three of the team’s four tournament games. 

“I really think that my injury opened my eyes a little bit more,” she said. “This year, it’s my senior year anyway so I wasn’t going to take anything for granted, but when you’re injured, it’s the worst feeling. The feeling of me getting to play again, it’s something that I haven’t taken for granted this year and I’m still not taking it for granted.”

From the lows of a summer softball diamond to the highs of a state title game, Smith knows Saturday will be a special day.

“I already know I’m not going to sleep for the next couple of days,” she said Wednesday afternoon while taking a break from practice at Indoor Action Sports in Greenfield. “No matter what, it’s been a magical season. It just feels so surreal still that we’re here.”

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