No matter the year, the Class A state championship goes through this team: Skowhegan. The River Hawks celebrate Wednesday after winning the Class A North title – their 20th consecutive regional championship. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

 

TOPSHAM — The Maine Central Institute and Skowhegan field hockey teams will be playing for a state championship Saturday afternoon.

And that’s about where the similarities end.

The Huskies, who play Winthrop in the Class C final, are an experienced bunch, with juniors and seniors making up all but two of their starting spots. Meanwhile, the River Hawks, who will play Cheverus for the Class A title, were the whiz kids of Class A North, a collection of freshmen and sophomores who have nevertheless won their way into playing for the state’s biggest prize.

Nothing beats experience, right? Well, yes or no, depending on which team on the brink of a state title you ask.

For Skowhegan (17-0-0), experience was not a requirement to keep its remarkable run going. The River Hawks won their 20th straight regional title, despite playing a starting lineup that includes two freshmen, five sophomores and zero seniors. Only two players, juniors Samantha Thebarge and Norrie Tibbetts, were on the 2019 team that was Skowhegan’s last in tournament play. When Skowhegan beat Oxford Hills 2-1 to reach the final, it was a freshman in Sydalia Savage and a sophomore in Layla Conway who netted the goals.

Not the makeup you would expect from a championship team. Heck, not even the makeup coach Paula Doughty would expect from one.

Maine Central Institute’s Alivia Ward, middle, tries to get past Foxcroft Academy defenders Meghan Spooner, left, and Annie Raynes during the Class C North field hockey championship game Wednesday afternoon in Topsham. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“This team was definitely from scratch,” she said. “The sophomores and freshmen, they haven’t even been to a tournament. The freshmen didn’t even have a season last year, because our middle school wouldn’t have a season.”

And yet, it’s worked. Not that this new group got together and had all the answers right away.

“If you could have seen this bunch when they started in June,” Doughty said. “We played Lawrence nine times this summer, and we lost to Lawrence nine times.”

As the season began and the fall went on, however, the familiar Skowhegan dominance took place, which Doughty attributed to a couple of factors.

“We have the best coaching staff in the state,” said Doughty, who counts Tammy Veinotte, Julie Lajoie, Kim Leo, Fawn Haynie and Megan Smith among her assistants, “and we have kids who are willing to work and learn like you wouldn’t believe. They soak it up like a sponge.”

There are two seniors, Jordyn Flannery and Zoe Nichols, on the team, but all of the River Hawks took it upon themselves to take on some leadership responsibility.

“A lot of us stepped into leadership roles to guide the team,” Conway said. “The whole junior class and the two seniors we have, they’re really good leaders and they supported us.”

Skowhegan’s Norrie Tibbetts, left, tries to get past Oxford Hills defender Zaya Vollmer during the Class A North championship game Wednesday in Topsham. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Youth and inexperience do have their detriments. Doughty said the lack of tournament seasoning was a reason the team went 1-for-12 on corners in the A North final, Doughty said, and freshmen and sophomores get knocked off the ball more easily than upperclassmen.

But freshmen and sophomores can also be more relaxed, which Doughty said can be a plus.

“When you get a group of seniors, they’re very focused and diligent,” she said. “These guys aren’t focused and diligent. They’re like ‘Oh, we’re having a great time, we’ll just get it done like every Skowhegan team.’ It’s one thing to say it, it’s another to do it, and they’ve done it.”

It’s a different story at MCI. The Huskies’ starting lineup Wednesday included six seniors and three juniors, and it’s a group that has been waiting for this chance for the last few seasons.

“I’ve never made it this far in a season,” MCI star senior Gracie Moore said, “but I always watched the teams that made it, and I was always ready, and I know my teammates were. We were ready for the challenge.”

Like Skowhegan, MCI doesn’t have much tournament experience, given the canceled postseason from a year ago. What coach Nancy Hughes sees, however, are the benefits of hours spent on the same field manifesting themselves.

“I just think it’s the fact that these girls have played together so much,” she said. “They played a lot in the offseason. Even with COVID, they were getting together and playing during the summer, they were doing tournaments that were open.”

MCI’s opponents have had to deal with a Huskies team that has a wealth of chemistry and game awareness.

Maine Central Institute’s Hannah Weaver gets the ball past Foxcroft Academy defender Annie Raynes during the Class C North field hockey championship game Wednesday afternoon in Topsham. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“We know each other so well,” junior Ella Bernier said. “We know each other’s strengths, we know who can drag the ball really hard, we know who can tip well. We know who has good shots. It’s really helpful.”

“One of the things I’ve been most pleased with … is how they’ve shown their game I.Q.,” Hughes said. “Instead of coaches always saying to them ‘This is what you need to do, you were in the wrong place,’ they look at each other and say ‘Hey, I’m going to put the ball here, you need to be here.'”

Examples of this are everywhere during games. Senior Alivia Ward is one of the team’s best decision-makers. Trinity Leavitt, another senior, was supposed to sub out against Foxcroft on Wednesday but stayed in because she recognized a rush developing. Hughes doesn’t call the team’s corners: the players know how to organize them themselves.

“They’re doing a lot of, I think, really smart things,” Hughes said. “They love the game. They want to play as much as they can.”

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