MATTHEWS – Jackie Haynes is one of three seniors on the Covenant Day field hockey roster this season. Haynes can vividly remember the first year the Lions had a varsity program when she was a freshman. Winning games wasn’t something they were doing a lot of.
“Coach used to tell me all the time that by the time we were seniors, we’d be state contenders,” Haynes said, still barely able to keep a straight face. “I was like, ‘OK, yeah sure coach.’ But we’re state contenders right now.”
The Lions are 8-4 through Oct. 8 and contenders. They got there by following a path laid out for them by Rachael Klohr, the only coach the program has ever had.
At first, it wasn’t easy as the team took its lumps the first season and won just nine of the past 30 games over the past two years entering 2019.
The Lions allowed 32 goals and scored just 26 times in 2018. This year, they’ve already scored 55 goals and allowed just 14.
“It’s been a progression,” Klohr said. “We’ve been very intentional about how we’ve been building this program … Our team verse is ‘One heart, one mind’ and I think that’s what we focus on. I think that’s a big deal and then the fact that now we have a lot of talent on our team.”
The team won a school-record five games last year and started the progression, but the arrival of six freshmen, many who have made a big impact on the field, and some key upperclassmen have helped raise the bar even higher.
“From the beginning of the season, coach has been telling us how excited she was for this year and how she was looking forward to it,” freshman Josie Mae Gruendel said. “From the beginning, we were excited about what was to come.”
The Lions made a loud entrance, winning each of their first three games by a combined score of 17-0. That’s when it started to hit the team that they could be good, Haynes said.
“Within our first couple of games where we started getting our chemistry and connecting our passes, we started to be like, ‘Wow, have the chemistry and we have the ability mentally and physically to play well as a team,”’ she said. “I think it was a step of confidence where we went to playing to win instead of playing to just survive.”
A big reason for the new-found success is the team’s offensive diversity.
Junior Carolina Dancu (nine goals and team-high 13 assists) and Haynes (four goals and two assists) have provided leadership and experience to guide the way.
Freshmen Grace Watson (team-high 13 goals), Olivia Hartley (12 goals and three assists) and Gruendel (five goals and six assists) have made a tremendous impact on the field and round out the bulk of the offensive attack.
The freshmen all say they were welcomed and put in the perfect environment to succeed.
“We have a sense of community here,” said Watson, who is in her first year at Covenant Day playing a fall sport, not the easiest thing to do as a freshman. “Everyone is lifting each other up and you can see that on the field. That’s a big thing that’s been helping us. We play well together, and as we have we’ve continued to grow as a team.”
The biggest justification that the Lions are heading in the right direction came during a three-game stretch in late September.
Dancu scored twice and handed out two assists in Covenant Day’s 8-0 win over Providence on Sept. 24. Two days later, Dancu scored and added the winning assist to Hartley as the Lions upset defending state champion Charlotte Latin 2-1 in overtime.
It was their first-ever CISAA win and a big confidence boost.
“I think it’s just a mindset,” Dancu said. “In the past, we’ve played to not lose or we’ve played more to defend. Even last year, we changed the mindset a little bit, but I think this year we have a little more confidence in our play.”
Dancu is one of several club players on the team, but many of the girls are just playing for the season. Still, she’s seen a big increase in skillset this year on the field.
“Being able to be confident in everyone on the team and having people that know a lot about field hockey is helpful to everyone,” she said. “Now even the people that don’t play club have improved so much just from all of us practicing and playing together. It’s paying off.”
The Lions have three road games left on their regular season schedule, and even if they lose them all are a lock to become a playoff team for the first time.
“It’s so incredible just to see it before your eyes,” Haynes said. “It’s not only just in the way that we’re playing…but literally just a couple of months ago we’re not even at a place where we can be competitive against a team like Latin. Our culture hasn’t changed, but as we’ve gotten better, we’ve gotten more confident, and people have started to notice.”
Haynes said opponents have commented that this Lions team is way more competitive than in the past, and students are actually talking about the field hockey team at school.
It’s a great thing, and something they want to build on far after this season comes to a close.
“We used to always joke about, ‘Hey, when we win states blah, blah, blah,’ because it was just so far in the future,” Dancu said. “But now we realize we could win it this year, we could win it next year and the following year, so I’m looking forward to that possibility. I want to see what we can do together.”