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Natick - Local Town Pages

NHS Field Hockey Team Adjusting To Modifications

Oct 27, 2020 11:25AM ● By Ken Hamway

The Redhawks’ captains include, from left, Alex McGrath, Emma Peck, Halle Berkowitz and Katherine Canty.

Ann Burnes, who’s in her sixth year as Natick High’s varsity field hockey coach, is excited her sport is having a season this fall but she’s acutely aware that it’s different.

Much different.

“Because of the pandemic, I’ve approached the season with a new sense of appreciation,’’ she noted. “What’s important is to be in the moment and enjoy what you have because you could lose it. Our sport doesn’t look the same as it usually does, primarily because of major modifications to the game and changes at practice.’’

Some of the changes include: masks on at all times; no penalty corners; seven versus seven instead of 11 players each; limited spectators; and social distancing.  

“No penalty corners take away the advantage for the offense when a defensive foul occurs in the offensive circle,’’ said Burnes, who has guided the Redhawks to four tourney berths in five seasons. “Typically, the offense is allowed a penalty corner where only five defenders are allowed in the circle. They have changed the play so that it is a free hit into the circle limiting the extent of the offensive advantage.’’

The seven-against-seven format on same-size fields with masks on puts an emphasis on conditioning. “Fitness will play a huge role and skill sets will be on full display,’’ Burnes said. “It’s difficult to hide a less skilled player when there are only six field players out there. There’s strategy differences with fewer players, and coaches will need to manage frequent substitutions.’’ 

Burnes said that a seven-on-seven lineup reduces opportunities for playing time and coaches need to be “thoughtful about roster size.’’ Limiting spectators translates to only two adults per player with no students attending. “Social distancing forces coaches to find ways to explain drills and concepts when players need to remain six feet apart,’’ Burnes said. “And,  team bonding is difficult since dinners and interactions are challenging under the new rules.’’

Two rule changes this season that are not related to covid-19 are four quarters instead of two halves and no time outs.

The Redhawks are playing an eight-game season with the following “pod’’ of schools in the Bay State Conference — Newton North, Brookline, Wellesley, and Needham. Natick will play each team twice, then have an inter-pod tournament that will end the season on Nov 13.  Natick opened against Newton North and won, 4-0.

The Redhawks last year finished at 10-5-2 and bowed in the Division 1 Sectional semifinal to Andover after defeating Masconomet and Winchester. Although seven players have graduated, Burnes has 16 returnees with varying degrees of experience. “Our strengths this season are our work ethic, experience, athleticism, close-knit chemistry, and leadership,’’ she said.

The Redhawks’ captains include three seniors — forward Katherine Canty, defender Halle Berkowitz and midfielder Alex McGrath —and junior Emma Peck, who plays as a midfielder or  defender. Burnes lauds the quartet’s ability to work together and admires their energy and enthusiasm for the game. 

“Katherine is a high energy forward who’s strong and plays a key role in team bonding,’’ Burnes said. “We rely on Halle’s experience. She’s got a calm demeanor that helps to keep the back line communicating. Her work ethic and mature attitude are great. Alex is a versatile midfielder and defender, a natural athlete who’s committed to play lacrosse at St Anselm. She gets better every year. Emma has been a varsity starter since her freshmen year. She’s committed to UMass-Amherst for field hockey. She’s worked hard and has gained a lot of confidence. Emma continues to impress as a player and a leader.’’

Burnes is upbeat about seniors Ella Gerrard, a goalie who had stellar performances in the state tourney games last year, and Angela White, who shared the goalkeeper role last season. “We’re hoping Ella can build on last year’s efforts. They push each other to be better.’’

Four seniors — Lily Kingdon (defense), Caitlin Collins (midfield), Molly O’Donoghue (midfield), and Georgian Young (midfield) are playing more significant roles this year. “They have all demonstrated flexibility in playing different positions,’’ Burnes said. “Hadley Green (defense) and midfielders Jessica Tallino and Emilia Morales, and forward Sammie Gondelman are juniors who made a lot of progress last year as sophomores and we’re hoping for continued growth.’’ 

Sophomores Brooke Spiegel, who “has great speed as a forward,’’ and Makenna Doucette, who “brings her physicality gleaned from her ice hockey skills’’ are competing at midfield. 

Freshman forward Olivia Norchi and sophomore midfielder Katey Connolly are new additions to the varsity. “Olivia is strong physically with some great stick skills for a freshmen and Katey brings a high level of intensity to her play,’’ Burnes said.

Burnes is no stranger to competitive field hockey. She played in high school in upstate New York and later became an all-American at William Smith College after leading the school  to a Division 3 national championship. Working as an assistant at her collegiate alma mater, she later coached varsity teams at St. Marks and Rivers. She currently works as a speech pathologist at the Bennett-Hemingway School in Natick.

Because there are no sectional or state championships this fall, Burnes objectives for 2020 are focused more on the process than the product.

“Since there are no post-season sectionals or state tourneys, we’re stressing the importance of enjoying the process,’’ she emphasized. “It’s more about loving field hockey, loving the opportunity of being with teammates and working as a unit, and also gaining satisfaction by improving one’s skills.’’

The coronavirus pandemic created lots of tragedy and uneasiness, especially during the  summer when student-athletes awaited word on whether they could compete this fall. That concern is now in their rear-view mirror.

“Our season is shortened but we’ll do the best we can in our games against Wellesley, Newton North, Brookline and Needham,’’ Burnes said. “Needham and Wellesley will be the strongest squads and they’re our biggest challenge.’’

For Ann Burnes and her team, the prime worry during the summer was the unknown. But, now that they’re competing in spite of changes to their sport, there’s no doubt there’s an appreciation for a return to some sense of normalcy.

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