New-look Stags impress in season opening win

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WESTBROOK—Not much is expected this fall from the perennially strong Cheverus field hockey team and that’s just fine with the Stags.

Because they believe they’re going to develop into a pretty strong unit.

Thursday at Westbrook High School, on a sunsplashed afternoon, Cheverus got off to a slow start and found itself behind, 1-0, but late in the first half, junior Abby Ford scored on a penalty stroke to break the ice and freshman Hannah Abbott scored her first varsity goal to give the Stags a 2-1 halftime advantage.

After fending off several Blue Blazes’ forays, Cheverus found itself starting from scratch when Westbrook tied the score with 13:07 to go, but just 94 seconds later, Stags junior Emily Michaud, one of the team’s few experienced players, capped a nice rush with a terrific individual effort, scoring the decisive tally and Cheverus’ defense slammed the door from there on an inspirational 3-2 victory.

The Stags had to turn aside 12 Blue Blazes penalty corners, but consistently overcame adversity and won their season opener for the eighth year in a row.

“Cheverus-Westbrook is always a fight and it’s never easy here,” said Cheverus coach Amy Ashley. “The kids battled hard.”

New beginnings

Cheverus posted its seventh consecutive winning record a season ago, finishing 11-3-1 after a 3-0 loss to Marshwood in the Western A quarterfinals.

Then, the program was absolutely decimated by graduation.

“I went through the roster last night and not only did we lose 13 seniors, but we lost 15 players,” Ashley said. “We knew we’d have a different look and that it would be tough.”

There is a precedent for Cheverus overcoming huge graduation losses to thrive, however. In 2010, the unheralded Stags quickly came of age and made an improbable run to the state final, becoming television stars in the process.

“We’ve talked (in the preseason) about how we’re not where we want to be, but we’ve had teams that graduated 13 before and made it a lot further than expected,” Ashley said. “It’s not about last year. We have to make sure we work as hard as we can every day.”

Entering Thursday’s contest, the teams had split 10 previous meetings (which included Blue Blazes’ victories in the 2008 and 2011 playoffs). Last fall, Cheverus beat Westbrook in the opener, 2-1.

This time around, the Stags proved their mettle.

The Blue Blazes carried play early and with 21:07 to go in the first half, struck first as junior Delaney Derrig finished a feed from junior Abby St. Clair for a 1-0 lead.

That goal awakened Cheverus. Late in the half, the Stags were rewarded when Westbrook senior goalie Zoe Shields trapped the ball and a penalty stroke was awarded.

Ford did the honors and with 4:53 to play before halftime, beat Shields to tie the game.

It didn’t stay deadlocked for long, as with 1:48 remaining, Abbott made her presence felt by banging home a rebound of a shot off the stick of junior Caroline Baker to give Cheverus a 2-1 advantage at the break.

“(Hannah’s) an athlete,” Ashley said. “That’s what the program is built on. Athletes, if not necessarily field hockey players. I’m happy for her.”

As was the case in the first half, the hosts came out strong in the second half, but the Stags dodged a couple of bullets as sophomore Morgan Rice shot just wide on a corner and sophomore Danielle Breunig had a shot saved by Cheverus’ first-year goalie, senior Casey Simpson.

The Blue Blazes kept pressuing and with 13:07 to go, just after a timeout, they managed to pull even, as Breunig pounced on a loose ball and directed the rebound past Simpson to make it 2-2.

It would have been understandable if the young Stags buckled at the point, but instead they finished strong, as one of their few veterans put on a memorable show.

Michaud brought the ball up the field, managed to elude a couple defenders, then, as she shot on Shields, she was knocked off her feet, but she managed to rattle the cage anyway and with 11:33 remaining, Cheverus was ahead to stay, 3-2.

“I weaved through and I drop-stepped and did a reverse flick,” Michaud said.

“It was an amazing goal,” said Ford. “She gave it her all.”

“Emily’s one of two starters we had last year and today, she stepped up and did a great job,” Ashley added. “She came through and it was exciting for her.”

From there, the Stags had to hold on and while Westbrook had several penalty corner opportunities, Cheverus’ defense stood tall and held on to prevail, 3-2.

“We realized we had to buckle down,” Michaud said. “Communication was key. It’s really rewarding when we work together. Everything we practiced we put into this game.”

“It’s a good start,” said Ford. “Our quote this year is to expect the unexpected. It took us awhile to get into the game. We just had to keep our sticks down at the end and make sure the ball didn’t get past us.”

Cheverus held an 8-6 edge in shots, but Westbrook enjoyed a 12-5 advantage on penalty corners. Shields made five saves, while Simpson stopped four shots in her debut.

“We want that pressure on us right now,” said Ashley. “We need to put Casey in pressure situations.”

Just the beginning

Cheverus is back in action Monday when it hosts Biddeford. The Stags will enjoy their promising start, but they know they still have a lot of work to do.

“We’re definitely getting there,” Ford said. “We’ll get a lot better as the season goes on.”

“I think we’ll be a good team,” Michaud said. “We have to take our skills and work together. It’s a lot different from last year.”

“We’re new at every position, so the more experience we have will help us down the road,” Ashley added. “It’s a work in progress.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.