Wethersfield field hockey qualified for the state tournament with a win over Newington. Pictured is head coach Colleen Budaj with senior captains Amanda Gilbert, Megan Tonucci, Maya Mulholland, and Emma Zaleski
When Colleen Budaj took over as the field hockey coach in Wethersfield the program was coming off a one-win season.
Three years of rewiring and reshaping later, Budaj and her team have reached the state tournament after defeating Newington 1-0 in overtime to close out the regular season last Thursday night.
Caroline Kennedy scored the game-winner in the extra session and goalie Jackie Samse didn’t allow a goal, lifting the Eagles to their fifth win of the season and cementing a spot in the Class M postseason.
It was a milestone that the positive head coach and her girls set out to reach prior to the 2015 season.
“When you take over a program you can’t change too many thing at once, but you know you have to make some changes. I asked them to set goals with me and they said they wanted to be taken seriously, they wanted to be competitive, and to be respected in the community and the school,” recalled Budaj, “They set very reasonable goals and each year we moved closer and closer. It’s nice to see that their hard work and dedication has paid off. I kind of feel like they felt it was unrewarded before and I know they were working hard before I took over, but they wanted to feel rewarded. At times the little victories don’t show up on the scoreboard and we have those all the time, but in reality you’re going to be judged by wins and losses.”
The current seniors were sophomores during the regime change and the group grew stronger together through many trials and tribulations.
Captains Amanda Gilbert, Megan Tonucci, Maya Mulholland, and Emma Zaleski are four of the seniors that have endured the agony of defeat and now are experiencing the thrill of the victory.
“It honestly feels amazing,” said Zaleski, “I remember picking up a field hockey stick for the first time during my freshman year and thinking what is this thing and how am I supposed to play this game. I was actually a swimmer and wanted to try something new. Also there was such a nice group of older girls that were very welcoming to us.”
“Our team has really developed over the past four years,” added Tonucci, “Our freshman year the program wasn’t winning many games and now we’re winning and the development of our team means a lot to me because I’ve been with these seniors from the beginning. It’s a very memorable time.”
The group’s turnaround has been nothing short of spectacular.
In the fall of 2014, the team scored only five goals and allowed 82. Each of the past three seasons the team has narrowed that discrepancy and this season the Eagles tallied 16 goals while allowing only 34.
“It’s such a different game for them now that they are playing with confidence and with poise. When I first took over they were used to losing games 5-0, 6-0, 8-0 and they would end up playing in this defensive mind set because that’s all that they knew. I would jokingly call it playing in panic mode. They are not playing in panic mode anymore and we’re passing with a purpose and they are seeing the field. The beauty of this season is that except for one game we were within one or two goals, so we’ve been in every game.”
The rapid development of the program hasn’t gone unnoticed by the school or the town. Wethersfield field hockey has become part of the conversation within the community.
“People take the sport more seriously. Our fan base has grown so much since our freshman year when we could maybe get five people to come and they were all parents. Now we have a whole student section to cheer us on for our games,” said Mulholland, “It’s nice to feel important. Now people recognize that this is a real sport and we play hard.”
“It’s so nice when teachers ask me how the team is doing and when I tell them that we’re about to make states, their reaction is so great,” added Gilbert, “I like being able to surprise everyone with how far our team has come and I think it’s going to be able to do great things for the program even after we’re gone.”
The four, along with the rest of a large senior class, have been instrumental with the implementation of the recently developed feeder program for youth field hockey in Wethersfield.
“I couldn’t have asked for stronger captain. They’re just so positive and the last couple of summers we’ve done clinics with the Wethersfield Sticks program and any time that I needed volunteers to come in and help those four were there as well as some of the other kids,” said Budaj, “The leadership that these four have provided in different ways is amazing. It’s nice because they’re staggered across the field on each line and they lead through their work ethic, how they organize things, and how they keep the team morale up. ”
Once the games start, the captains have different ways of leading.
Zaleski and Mulholland are vocal leaders while Tonucci and Gilbert lead with their quiet confidence on the field.
Budaj added that they each bring a unique set of skills on the field.
“Emma is always in the right place at the right time and is a natural leader.”
“Maya runs the whole field and has that vision to make plays happen.”
“Megan will challenge people and she wins almost every low battle.”
“Amanda knows the game tremendously well and she’s truly one of those kids that never comes off the field because she has the ability to last the whole game.”
Gilbert and Mulholland, along with fellow seniors Hannah Reardon and Lexi Munger, have covered the backend of the defense, helping keep goalies Kaleigh Sullivan and Samse clean.
Samse had never played field hockey prior to this fall, but stepped up when the team needed someone in net this season.
“Jackie is new to field hockey this season, she came over from soccer and she transferred some of that to field hockey. She decided her senior year that she wanted to try something different and to be a part of a different type of program,” said Budaj, who also coaches softball at WHS, “Kaleigh was away for part of the season and Jackie filled in without hesitation. It takes a special player to put those pads on and she has a defensive mentality.”
Mulholland has also shown her versatility this season, moving towards the offensive end of the field.
“Maya and Amanda are the rocks of the defense, but if we were going to be more of an offensive team we had to slide one up and Maya said she’d do it to give us more of an opportunity to score goals,” added the third-year coach.
Mulholland has joined Zaleski, Tonucci, Kennedy, and Kaitlyn O’Brien to provide a much-needed spark on the offensive end.
O’Brien almost single handedly won a game for the Eagles on Oct 3 when she scored three goals, including the game-winner in overtime, to erase a two-goal deficit in a 3-2 victory over E.O. Smith. It marked the team’s first overtime victory in the three seasons under Budaj.
Sophomores Summer Mitchell and Zoe Kleeblatt have also received valuable playing time this season, while freshman Lorien Touponse has fit right in as the first player off the bench for a deep Eagles team.
The young talent is a direct correlation of the feeder program that includes two middle school teams and a pair of developmental teams which have been created the past couple of years.
“It’s great because we’re not spending time going over all the rules. They already know how to play and we’re not spending the first four weeks going over the basic fundamentals. We can hit the ground running because they have that experience,” stated Budaj.
Coaching with Budaj is her husband, Steve, who is helping manage a program that had over 40 kids come out for field hockey this season. It’s a far cry from the 20 that tried out three years ago.
They decided not to cut, allowing all 40+ players to participate and the coaching duo has stressed the importance of finishing games.
That message came into focus after the team lost their first handful of games.
“He’s been a really nice addition to the program. I think we compliment each other really well,” Budaj said of coaching with Steve, “We had some tough games early, losing 2-1 to Avon and 2-0 to Glastonbury, but we left those games thinking we can hang with people. When they realized that we can hang with the bigger schools that gave them the confidence that we could do this.”
Since the winless start, the program finished with five wins and lost only four more games in regulation the rest of the season.
In many ways this season has mirrored the three-year growth of the program, but the resilient bunch has dealt with much more than just wins and losses.
Last season the team and entire community mourned the loss of former goalie and friend Vanessa Carbone, whose life they honored during a recent home game against Northwest Catholic.
“We got together with the kids and a couple of the parents and we decided that we wanted to dedicate one of the games to her. It was an emotional game. We did a fundraiser for Cherish the Children, which is a nonprofit organization that helps families with medical crises that come up unexpectedly. We raised about $500 through that game to benefit a charity that her family has been involved in. We wore purple ribbons because that was her favorite color and the kids decided that they didn’t want anyone to wear her #99 jersey so we presented it to her father.”
Carbone would have graduated last season and her legacy will continue to be honored for years to come through the Vanessa Carbone Memorial Scholarship, which an annual scholarship open to any field hockey player that exhibits the qualities of sportsmanship, teamwork and fair play.
All in all, Budaj and her girls have persevered through the toughest of times and have now reached a goal that seemed improbably for a group of sophomores just three years ago.
It’s a senior class that the coach will not soon forget.
“I can’t even think about playing without them. It’s that kind of senior class where they have been the heart and soul of this team and their passion for this sport is amazing. Even as sophomores and juniors they were helping lead this team and it’s going to be hard to picture how this team is going to look next year, but five years down the road when we’re winning games they can look back and say they were a part of that movement.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin