Reloading, not rebuilding: Eustace hockey still has great expectations

Bishop Eustace Prep’s field hockey team lost eight starting seniors since last spring and is without its leading scorer after ACL surgery. Championship aspirations remain, however.

Bishop Eustace Prep sophomore Cassie Chapjian and junior Rachel Sobocinski battle for the ball. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Most of the girls have played the sport for long enough to know that when they enroll at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School, they’re joining a field hockey team that expects to play deep into the playoffs each fall.

For those who aren’t aware, the message is received at some point during freshman orientation. It’s written in big, white letters over a black background in the school’s Field House.

The Tradition is That of a Winner.

“My expectations are very high,” said Danielle Senior, a Eustace graduate entering her eighth year as the head coach of the field hockey program.

The Crusaders won a state title in Senior’s first season, 2012, and then again in 2016.

“I expected them to come in conditioned, I expect them to respect their teammates, I expect good sportsmanship,” Senior continued after a recent practice. “I want them to have fun, but also know this just isn’t some (ordinary) high school program; we work to be the best we can be. You don’t win at all costs, but we work really hard to try to win.”

Bishop Eustace Prep’s coaching staff speaks with the players during the first week of practice. The Crusaders have played in three consecutive state title games and despite losing nine regulars from last year’s team, continue to have high expectations. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Eustace has played in each of the last four Non-Public state championships. Whether it’s able to make it five in a row, and take a shot at claiming a third state title in eight years, is likely dependant on the maturation of a mostly inexperienced lineup. 

The Crusaders watched 11 seniors graduate in the spring, including eight starters. Current senior Julia Gatelein, who led the team with 31 goals last season, is out for 2019 after undergoing surgery for an ACL injury suffered during lacrosse. Two other promising, contributing players transferred out of school.

Some coaches could have a defeatist attitude after doing all of that math – it’s an awful lot of subtraction. Senior, fortunately, wouldn’t be one of those coaches.

“Where there’s loss, there’s an opportunity for these girls,” Senior said. 

Bishop Eustace Prep sophomore Alex Senior maintains possession with junior Rachel Sobocinski in pursuit. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Eustace has experience back at a pivotal position in goal: junior Mia Trottie is back for her third straight season. Seniors Claire Vassel and Abby Miller have varsity experience, and sophomore Alex Senior scored 12 goals (third on the team) as a freshman last season.

The overall youth movement, new varsity players jockeying for roles and playing time, has created a competitive but fun environment during the preseason.

“It’s really nice to play with my friends,” Trottie said. “I’ve been used to playing with the older kids, we had a lot of seniors last year and I was a sophomore. I just feel like everyone mixes well right now.”

“I think it’s actually a good thing because everyone is forced to work really hard and step into new roles since we don’t have a lot of experience,” said Vassel. “No one is going to slack off, we’re going to push each other.”

Bishop Eustace Prep sophomore Julia Faiola tries to find an open teammate with coach Trina Santomauro closing in.(RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Eustace will be tested regularly in a competitive Olympic Conference, but they welcome the challenge. Despite its overall youth, a program that has gone 75-13 (with a 42-0-1 record in division play) doesn’t believe in rebuilding years. 

Just because you have a lot of players new to varsity doesn’t mean you have a lack of players lacking in talent.

“We have a great amount of skill and field hockey IQ,” Danielle Senior said.

“They’ve worked so hard in the preseason,” added Gatelein, who will stick with the team as a coach of sorts before continuing her field hockey career at Lehigh University next fall. “So I think everyone prepared. I think we’re still going to be good, we still have a lot of great players who play club.”

The first month of the season should be important for the Crusaders. If they get off to a strong start, who’s to say they can’t run through the Non-Public playoffs again?

“We definitely have to find out who goes best where (on the field),” Vassel said. “Once we get the hang of that, we’ll be good to go. We just have to sort things out in the beginning. From there, I think things will go pretty well.”

Bishop Eustace Prep sophomore Alexa Ronning juggles a ball during a break in practice. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)