For some, like the seniors who play regularly on a relatively-young Camden Catholic field hockey team, the journey began three years ago. For others, like freshman standouts Olivia Bent-Cole and Ava Moore, it began a few months ago.
But the beginning of molding one of South Jersey’s most competitive teams from contender to champion may have come in August, when coach Mark Vittese penned an email and hit send.
The body of the message was a bunch of numbers. Each had its own significance.
“Eight years. More than 15. Eight years. Thirty-four years,” Vittese said, running back through some of the words he sent three months earlier. “Those are all streaks that you need to end.”
Five days after ending one streak — beating rival Bishop Eustace in a playoff game for the first time in 15 years, clinching a berth in the sectional championship game — Camden Catholic moved a step closer to ending a 34-year drought without a state title by beating Moorestown Friends 7-0 in the South Jersey Non-Public championship.
The sectional title was the first for the Irish since 2011 and just their third in 17 seasons. So when the final whistle was blared on Wednesday, even with a state championship match with Oak Knoll, the top team in the country, on deck for the weekend, Camden Catholic savored the opportunity to raise a trophy.
“It’s crazy how long it’s been,” senior Katie Walsh said. “Since beating Eustace, since winning a sectional title, everything. It means so much.”
“It feels amazing,” fellow senior Kaitlyn Cummins said.
Even before Walsh, Cummins, and the other Irish seniors stepped into the school for the first time in 2016, Camden Catholic always had talent but hadn’t even been the top team in its own division for quite a while. Entering this season, the Irish were 0-18-1 against Olympic Conference National Division rival Bishop Eustace since September of 2012, including defeats in each of the last two South Jersey Non-Public championship games.
But this year? The Irish went 3-0 in three meetings with Eustace and took an 18-2 record into the program’s first state championship match since 2011.
Their only losses came to South Jersey titan Eastern (which was eyeing its 21st state straight title last weekend) and Kingsway. In addition to their trio of wins over Eustace, Camden Catholic owned victories over traditional South Jersey power Shawnee as well as two other state finalists, Haddonfield and Seneca, among others.
“I think this team is just really special,” said Walsh, a lacrosse standout who scored in each half in Wednesday’s sectional championship win over Moorestown Friends. “We’ve stayed so positive throughout the year and kept on working hard.”
One of the team’s aforementioned wonderkid freshmen, Bent-Cole, collected her third hat trick of the season, the first on a first-half penalty stroke, to help fuel Camden Catholic’s offense against the Foxes.
“It was the whole team, it wasn’t just one person,” Bent-Cole said. “Without the whole team being united, we wouldn’t have gotten where we are.”
For a ninth grader, Bent-Cole’s analysis was spot-on. It also echoed the fiery halftime message from their coach, too.
Rather than rev up the fellow students, family and friends packing the home bleachers at Camden Catholic with the “ooohs” and “aaahs” after deking out opponents with impressive stick skills, Vittese preached for them to use each other, pass more, and utilize the entire field in order to reach their true potential in the game’s final 30 minutes.
It was at least the second message from Vittese that stuck. The first arrived in each player’s inbox three months ago.
“I remember being at home and my parents coming home and telling me, ‘You have to sit down and read this email and take it all in,’” Cummins said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow, we can do this.’ When we step on the field the first pep talk we say, ‘This is us, this is our team, and it’s not just a team, it’s a family.’ That’s the whole foundation this year.”
When they walked off their home field for the final time on Wednesday, the year wasn’t over. Even if they’ll play the role of underdog in Saturday’s state championship match with Oak Knoll, the Irish are eager for the opportunity to snap another of the streaks listed in that August email.
“We’re very excited,” Cummins said. “I think we’ve got it in the bag.”