Winthrop field hockey coach Jess Merrill had her team ready to play St. Dominic in the Class C state championship game, no small feat considering the Saints were one of the highest scoring teams in state history.

St. Dom’s had outscored its opponents 140-7 during the regular season and had scarcely been tested. Merrill and the Ramblers took them to the wire thanks to advanced scouting and a solid game plan.

“We had watched St. Dom’s play throughout the year,” Merrill said. “we knew we had to stay home and we knew we had to force (the ball) out wide.”

The strategy nearly worked as the outcome came down to the final few seconds in the second overtime period with the Saints winning 3-2.

For her efforts Merrill has been selected Kennebec Journal Field Hockey Coach of the Year.

Now in her fifth year at Winthrop, Merrill has learned the game each step along the way. She played for legendary coach Moe McNally at Gardiner then coached Hall-Dale field hockey for three years. She found a home at Winthrop when she replaced long-time coach Sharon Coulton, who stayed on as her assistant. The two has combined to make a formidable coaching duo.

“She and coach Coulton are great,” Winthrop senior Kinli DiBiase said. “She has all the experience in the world. She knows each player individually and how to connect with us.”

DiBiase was the team’s lone senior and Merrill had no great expectations going into the season. She figured they might jell in October and make a playoff run. Things turned out be than expected. The Ramblers went unbeaten over their first 11 games, finished the regular season at 12-1-1 and winning the Mountain Valley Conference championship. For Merrill it was just another learning experience.

“I think I’ve just learned to value the relationships you build with the kids,” she said. “It’s so much more than just getting the wins, knowing how much it means for the kids to be part of the team.”

Merrill said she doesn’t believe she could coach the team without Coulton but in five seasons she’s found her own voice and quietly gets her points across.

“She’s got a good attitude and is super supportive,” DiBiase said. “And she’s got a good sense of humor.”

The game has changed in Merrill’s tenure at Winthrop, too. Players participate more in the off-season and have perfected more skills, leading to a faster pace and quicker decision making.

“It’s important to stay up with the skills that the kids are learning,” Merrill said. “I’m still a student of the game.”

Merrill coaches the girls tennis team in the spring, last year leading them to a Class C semifinal playoff appearance which ended with a loss to St. Dom’s. As far as the state final goes, Merrill was satisfied with her team’s performance.

“We held with them pretty well,” she said. “I wouldn’t change anything we did.”

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