WATERVILLE — It looks like a locker combination. The three numbers are stickered onto water bottles, and the Colby College field hockey team have them memorized, tattooed into their collective consciousness.

What’s the big deal about 11-8-14?

“That’s the NESCAC final four,” senior Kellie Walsh said. “If we make that final four, we’ll have a pretty good shot of making NCAA’s.”

Last season, the Mules had their first winning season since 2004, and reached the New England Small College Athletic Conference playoffs for the first time since 2008. If the Mules continue to improve as they hope, they’ll play in the conference semifinals on Nov. 8, and perhaps later than that.

Colby’s season began on Wednesday night against crosstown rival Thomas College. The Mules open NESCAC play on Saturday at Williams.

“We’ve embraced this winning culture. Before we were just OK whether we won or loss. We were like, ‘Oh, whatever,'” senior Kaitlyn O’Connell said. “Now we go into each game expecting to win. We’ve put in all this hard work, and we deserve to win. That’s what is so different about it now.”

While the results started to show last season, the change in the Colby field hockey team began four years ago when coach Tina Cormier took over the program. Cormier came to Colby from Providence College, where she was an assistant coach and the Friars were consistently among the top teams in the Big East.

In 2011, Cormier’s first season, the Mules went 4-10. In 2012, they improved to 6-8. That season, Walsh transferred to Colby from Holy Cross as a sophomore, and loved the energy around the team.

“My first year here, you could definitely tell that things were changing, but we weren’t quite there yet. Last year, it just all came together,” Walsh said.

When the team returned for preseason practices last year, Cormier noticed a difference.

“In the offseason before last season, the kids just committed to the offseason program and their workouts. They were so excited. There was so much energy,” Cormier said.

Colby went 9-6, and the improvement was apparent in two early season wins over NESCAC opponents.

First, Colby defeated Williams, 3-0, in the season opener. Two weeks later, the Mules knocked off Trinity, 5-0.

“Taking them down 5-0, that was our first time beating a ranked team in a long time. It really instilled this confidence in all the girls that we can beat these big teams and take our team to that next level,” O’Connell said.

Reaching that level will not be easy in the toughest field hockey conference in the nation. Five NESCAC schools ranked in the top 20 of the latest National Field Hockey Coaches Association Division III poll, including No. 1 Bowdoin, the defending national champion. Four NESCAC schools spent time ranked in the national top five in 2013.

“The big thing of building the foundation was bringing in the kind of kids that wanted to be part of this program, wanted to create something special,” Cormier said. “The kids we have on board right now are all about that. They want to be something special and they want to compete for the NESCAC title. I think we have a lot more drive and a lot more motivation.”

Walsh said the team’s drive to improve starts with Cormier.

“The biggest thing with Coach is, she’s going to push us mentally and physically. That’s sports. That’s life,” Walsh said. “She demands the most out of us every single day. We know we have to work hard.”

The Mules return talented players across the field, including All-American junior goalie Sarah Evans, who led all of Division III in save percentage (.860) last season. Walsh and O’Connell captain the Mules along with Caroline Keaveney and Erin Maguire.

Colby returns four of its top five scorers, including Megan Fortier, who led the team with 13 goals and three assists for 29 points.

“We have a great group of leaders right now. From the get-go, they wanted to elevate the standard of this program, and they have. Now they want to finish in the top,” Cormier said. “They don’t want to just make the (conference) tournament, they want to finish in the top four. They want to be ranked nationally. They’ve got a taste of success. Now they want to prove they’re that much better and can do that much more.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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