MONTEREY — The absence of field hockey for nearly 18 months didn’t exactly trigger a resurgence on campus when the sport returned this fall.
Adding to the wave of uncertainty surrounding the Monterey High program was that head coach Rosanna McCormick had been away for two years, taking maternity leave in 2019.
Essentially the majority of players that returned to the field after the sport was canceled last fall due to the pandemic were strangers to McCormick.
“I came back and didn’t know their positions, strengths, weaknesses, what I needed to develop,” McCormick said. “That was really rough. I didn’t know where to start.”
The beginning was less than ideal for the Toreadores, who endured growing pains while learning the game on the fly in the preseason.
“I hadn’t picked up a stick in over a year,” said forward Alison Levin. “I did a lot of cross-fit workouts to remain fit. And softball returned in the spring. But timing and cohesiveness are critical in field hockey.”
Dropping three preseason games — including a 9-0 pounding by CCS power Los Gatos — didn’t provide a confidence boost that perhaps players were clamoring for.
Then again that’s not what McCormick had in mind when she put the schedule together, unsure of what her roster would even look like.
“No one likes losing 9-0,” McCormick said. “But there was a learning curve. Playing more aggressive schools helps reveal your weaknesses. I did it partly to shake out what kind of team I’d have.”
McCormick could not have imagined that six games into the Mission Division season, Monterey would be undefeated and building steam toward the program’s first title in 24 years.
“I honestly thought it would be a rebuilding year,” senior Gabriella Montante said. “And it has been. I had no expectations. I think it has shocked all of us how quickly we connected.”
That connection can be traced back to the preseason, where the Toreadores grinded out one win in four matches. That one decision set the tone for league play.
Monterey has been on a scoring frenzy behind Levin, who recorded a hat trick earlier this year and leads the league with 12 goals and eight assists.
“I personally feel like it all came back to me as soon as I put a stick in hand,” Levin said. “It just felt good again to be out there playing the game.”
McCormick believes part of the reason her squad had rounded into form so quickly is the core of her players are multiple-sport athletes, maintaining a certain fitness year-round.
“These girls are rising to the occasion,” McCormick said. “These kids are freaking studs. I’m a big advocate of multiple-sport athletes. When you get them, they’re ready and they’re focused.”
Still, there is a huge learning curve to a sport foreign to most upon arriving. The pandemic kept McCormick from scanning the halls and discovering potential athletes last year, even in a canceled season.
“I’d literally stop girls in the hallways,” McCormick said. “I ask if you’re not doing anything after school, why not field hockey? But I haven’t been on campus for two years. We have two classes that have never played the sport. COVID just blew it all up.”
A program that normally has 50-plus players, has 29 this fall, just enough to field a varsity and junior varsity program. But it’s also forced McCormick to pull a few freshmen up to fill her roster.
The cupboard, though, wasn’t completely bare. In addition to Levin and Montante, seniors Anna Manely and Michaela Garcia have given McCormick something she’s never had and that’s four offensive-minded players.
“Alison is quick and navigates through traffic while Anna is just fast,” McCormick said. “And Gabby sets them up. She creates the offense. She keeps everyone calm and focused. She’s the captain, the voice on the field.”
Manely’s speed makes her lethal on a break, producing seven goals, while Garcia has evolved as another scoring option this fall, producing a pair of goals in Monterey’s win over Salinas in a battle of unbeatens in the Mission Division last month.
“The sport is so different from others,” Manely said. “It’s about connecting. There was a little rust to shake off. I think we’re pleasantly surprised how fast it’s come together.”
Having had the game stripped from them for 18 months has brought a deeper appreciation to just being back on the field and competing. Enthusiasm has become contagious.
“Honestly, I’m just trying to enjoy the moment,” Garcia said. “I just wanted to have fun and have an enjoyable senior year. Of course, winning doesn’t hurt. But it creates pressure.”
And expectations. When your team and name are consistently mentioned over the loudspeaker system in class, it’s hard to ignore a program that’s undefeated.
“I think we’re so appreciative of what we have,” Manely said. “I don’t take anything for granted anymore. This was taken from us last year. It sucked.”
Certainly, success creates interest. McCormick has had girls come up and ask questions about the sport, showing an increased interest for the future of the program.
“You have to make your program more enticing,” McCormick said. “I think 6-0 in league meets that criteria. People are starting to sniff it out. We have pockets of support.”
And a showdown looming next week when Monterey faces Carmel, which it held off 2-1 in the teams’ first meeting.
“The amount of growth offensively has been incredibly amazing,” McCormick said. “These kids are challenging each other. These four seniors are invested into the team. It trickles down. It makes everyone else better.”
Of course, there are always distractions and the Toreadores had this past week off as the district is on fall break.
“The fall break sometimes can crush your momentum,” McCormick said. “But at the same time, they’re tired. In our case, the break is coming at the right time.”
What McCormick hopes to see in the second half is growth defensively. Despite having posted two shutouts, there have been breakdowns on the defensive side.
“There is a lot of room for us to grow,” McCormick said. “I had to pull some kids up from the JVs because of injuries. They’re eager. But they lack experience. I have seen them get better in channeling the ball and their hits.”
When you’re undefeated, you’re no longer sneaking up on opponents. No one, though, has forgotten how bumpy the preseason was just five weeks ago.
“The preseason was pretty rocky,” Garcia said. “We were looked upon as underdogs. But it got us to where we needed to be as a team. It improved our skillset and trust in each other.”
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