Right from preseason, everything was different for the Gardiner field hockey team this season.

With only three returning players, the Tigers, for the first time in years, weren’t picked as a state championship contender. Of their 15 players, 11 were freshmen or sophomores.

So coach Moe McNally changed up the preseason entirely. Instead of focusing on fitness the first week, McNally ordered drills, basics and fundamentals. During the season, she nearly blew her top a few times, but she pushed and prodded the Tigers to become a much stronger team than they had been in August.

Gardiner finished 7-5-3, losing a tough game to John Bapst in the first round of the Eastern B playoffs. For that performance, McNally is the Kennebec Journal Field Hockey Coach of the Year. Winthrop’s Sharon Coulton and Cony’s Holly Daigle were also considered.

Coaches sometimes will walk away from the program at the same time as a strong group of seniors. McNally stayed because she still wants to coach, and this team was a great opportunity to be a teacher.

“I think it’s pretty simple: I like what I do,” she said. “I love teaching. It’s always been a passion of mine. I love seeing kids improve, and I knew coming into this year how much these kids were going to improve.”

There was so much for the young players to learn about playing at the high school level. Could they learn to make quick adjustments on the field? Could they improve their stickwork? Could they learn to easily adapt to change?

During this process, McNally waited — sometimes patiently, sometimes less so. She freely admits she’s a demanding coach, and she often would throw things in frustration while watching some of her best teams. So she enlisted assistant coach Sharon Gallant to, in McNally’s words, “make sure I don’t completely implode while I’m waiting for these kids to improve.”

“She did say to me more than one time, ‘I’m going to need you to remind me we’re playing with babies,’ ” said Gallant, McNally’s assistant the past 13 years. “The first half of the year, if I said, ‘Maureen, this is an opportunity to develop patience,’ she was pretty good.

“Toward the end of the season, I’d say, ‘Maureen, we’re just playing with babies.’ She’d look at me and say, ‘Not anymore!’ ”

Although she does little to hide her fire, McNally can be a master at dealing with her players. She learned early on that at the end of practice, you need to make sure the players want to come back.

“She’s very poised,” Gardiner senior Jenna Moore said. “She’s the kind of person who just commands respect. She doesn’t need to yell for you to listen to her. She always wants us to do better, but she points out what we’re already doing well.”

“She is the most prepared, most organized coach I’ve ever met,” Gallant said. “She has every practice planned right down to the minute. One of the other things that makes her so successful is the rapport she has with the kids. She knows if you’re a kid that needs tender loving care or a kid needs her to be a little grumpy. She’s got them all figured out.”

McNally has coached Gardiner field hockey for 33 seasons. She admits the end-of-the-season fatigue hits her a little harder these days, but it only takes a few days from the end of the season before she’s on the phone, talking about who will play where next season.

“This was, in every sense of the word, an exceptional group of kids to work with,” McNally said. “You left feeling, ‘I’m sorry it’s over,’ and I’ll be glad when it comes around again.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243
[email protected]


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