WINTHROP — It’s the closing minutes of the Winthrop High School field hockey team’s Tuesday practice. The next day the Ramblers will travel to Dixfield to take on Dirigo High in the season opener. It will be Winthrop’s first game as a state champion in 29 years.

Before practice ends, there is a tradition that must be honored. The Ramblers form a wide circle. The circumference stretches half of Kelsey Ann Stoneton Memorial Field. This tradition is old. Nobody involved with the team now was here when it started. Nobody knows exactly when it started. They know the circle is important.

“It’s just something really important to us that we do,” junior midfielder Kerrigan Anuszewski said a few minutes later, when practice was over. “When we hit the field tomorrow, we hit it running.”

Winthrop’s Hannah Duley, front, battles for the ball with a player from Camden Hills during a preseason play day in Winslow. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The Ramblers clap twice, slap their legs, and each one takes a step in. The circle gets smaller, and the rhythm speeds up. Clap clap. Clap clap.

Finally, the circle is gone and the Ramblers are huddled together in the middle of the field. A cheer goes up, and the team is ready to get on a bus Wednesday to face Dirigo.

“It’s a little unity before we get going,” Winthrop coach Jess Merrill said, watching her team’s ancient bonding tradition unfold from the sideline.

Last season, the Ramblers won the Class C state title with a 3-1 win over Mountain Valley Conference rival Spruce Mountain. It was Winthrop’s first field hockey state crown since 1989, when the Ramblers won the second of back-to-back championships. Winthrop had come close a few times over the year. The Ramblers were Class C runner-up in 2011 and again in 2012, Merrill’s first season as head coach. Winthrop was runner-up again in 2017, and the feeling that goes with that is still fresh in the minds of many current Ramblers.

“My sister was on the team so I was at the state championship game,” sophomore midfielder/forward Maddie Perkins said. “It was still a hard loss, especially seeing my sister (Katie Perkins) sad. I knew that sadness would turn into toughness.”

Added Anuszewski: “It really put fire in our eyes. We had a goal, but it wasn’t going to just magically happen. We had to work every day in practice. Every game we had to work really, really hard, otherwise we weren’t going to get there.”

Once they got there, the question for the Ramblers was, how do they stay there?

Winthrop went 17-1 last season, culminating with the title game win. The Ramblers graduated eight starters, and Merrill knew one of her big offseason jobs had to be stoking that fire in their eyes.

“We’ve had to take a step back. We have a lot of incoming players, new players. We graduated eight starters from last year’s team. Keeping that intensity, and letting the girls know we still have that high standard,” Merrill said.”I think it makes me work that much harder. It makes me want to stay at this level. There’s a great tradition here at Winthrop. It makes me want to work harder for the girls, for everybody.”

If the offseason was a time to either bask in victory or feel pressure to repeat, the Ramblers didn’t feel either.

“It was kind of chill, honestly,” Perkins said.

“It was just a lot of working hard over the summer. We changed our lineup a lot from last year. Over the summer it was a lot of us figuring out where we’re going to put people and what’s going to work well for us this year,” Anuszewski said.

Realignment moved Winthrop from Class C North to the South. If the Ramblers advance to the state final for the third straight season, it will be through a new slate of playoff opponents. Some they know as Mountain Valley Conference opponents, some will be unknown.

“I’m excited. It will be a good challenge for us. I’m going to miss the North teams, because we play them all summer long. It will be a different look,” Merrill said of the new region.

The move from North to South is just another challenge for Merrill, who prides herself on being prepared. She plans practices meticulously, focusing on simple things and keeping it positive. Merrill does not want to be outcoached.

“There’s a lot of talent in this group. Getting them to see that has been, not a challenge, but getting them to see what they can do has been our focus,” Merrill said.

With challenges ahead, the Ramblers form their circle.

Clap clap.

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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