GARDINER — As if trying to defend Nickyia Lovely hasn’t been difficult enough over the course of her prolific high school field hockey career, opponents are starting to find out that standing in the path of one of the Gardiner senior’s shots can be more hazardous than ever.

Lovely unveiled a more powerful shot during a scrimmage against Messalonskee on Tuesday, firing one from the top of the circle that caught Gardiner coach Sharon Gallant off-guard and had defenders thinking self-preservation over guarding Lovely.

“When it hit the back (of the cage) and ricocheted and made that sound off the back wood I was, like, ‘Oh my.’ It was an absolute rocket,” Gallant said. “Not many people came out afterwards on the corner. As soon as they saw that the ball went to her, there was a little bit of hesitation on the defense. The fly was a little slower. There was no trail coming in. They gave her a very wide swath to shoot.”

Lovely has cut a wide swath of success through her career. A four-year starter, her 46 career goals rank third all-time at Gardiner. She goes into the season needing 16 goals to pass Hailey Chadbourne for the all-time school mark.

Last year, she scored 13 goals and helped lead the Tigers to their first state championship game since 2009, which they lost to York, 2-1.

This year, Gardiner’s team motto is “unfinished business.” But with Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B player of the year Abby Dyer and other key contributors graduated, and with Winslow and Lawrence joining Northern Class B, Gallant is reminding the Tigers they can’t just pick up where they left off last fall.

Lovely believes a focus on improving team chemistry, defense and conditioning will help the Tigers get another crack at the state title.

“It’s slowly clicking,” Lovely said. “We’re getting better as the games are going on. We’ll just have to keep working as hard as we can to keep going and get where we were last year.”

Lovely trained with Kristy (Ferran) McNaughton, the former Winslow star who was the first Miss Maine Field Hockey in 1998, and worked on her arm and leg strength to add velocity to her shot.

“I did a lot of shooting drills and drills to practice my hitting,” Lovely said.

She improved her shooting skills to go with an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. “She is incredibly aggressive and has a nose for the ball,” Gallant said. “She’s one of those kids that, no matter where it is in the circle, she knows where it is and she’s on it.”

Lovely showed those instincts and uncommon competitiveness at an early age, but a strong senior group forced then coach Moe McNally to send her to the junior varsity for the start of her freshman year at Gardiner.

Gallant was thrilled to have the fiery freshman on the JV squad, but she knew it wouldn’t last long.

“The first game I think she scored three or four times, and the second game, same thing,” Gallant said. “So coach McNally came over and said ‘That’s the last day she plays for you.'”

Lovely went on to score 10 varsity goals as a freshman, then potted 23 more as a sophomore.

The next step in Lovely’s development was perhaps the most difficult.

“When you’re that good, it’s hard sometimes not to feel like you have to take over and do it all yourself. I don’t think she feels that way,” Gallant said.

On the contrary, Lovely has complete faith in her teammates, including fellow tri-captains Bryce Smith and Kaylin Mansir, to take the pressure off of her, whether it is as a scorer or a team leader.

“I do look forward to scoring each game, but mainly I like to keep the team together, because if I stay positive, that means everybody else will be positive,” Lovely said.

Helping Lovely build on that positive platform is her younger sister, Hailee, a sophomore who lines up next to her sister at forward. Last year, Hailee, was promoted to varsity during the season and ended up assisting Nickyia on her game-winning goal in overtime of the Tigers’ 2-1 regional final win over Belfast. Nickyia returned the favor in the state game, assisting when Hailee scored Gardiner’s only goal.

“It was a little weird at first (playing together), but we’ve gotten used to it,” said Nickyia, who is considering University of Maine at Farmington and Husson University to continue her academic and playing careers. “We still kind of bicker at each other sometimes, but it’s awesome having her next to me because I know everything that she’s going to do and she knows everything that I’m going to do.”

Just what the Tigers are going to do this season is still a mystery, but Lovely knows how she would like to see it play out.

“The perfect season would be having everyone stick together on the team,” she said. “I mean, I love the girls that I play with. It’s just so fun being around them. I want everyone to be successful.”

Gardiner hosts Oceanside to start the season on Thursday.

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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