Above: Cheshire’s Michelle Federico (left) competes in a game played last year. The Rams are pegged to contend for another league title. Photo by Arnold Gold/New Haven Register
The Cheshire field hockey team has been on a roll the last two years. Coaches in the area have certainly taken notice.
“The strongest team in our area will undoubtedly be Cheshire,” said Hand coach Sue Leckey recently. “They have a talented coach (Eileen Dunham), maybe the best player in high school field hockey this season with Michelle Federico, and a lot of other experienced players returning from last year’s dominant team.
“Cheshire is skilled, aggressive, strong and used to winning.”
The Rams are the two-time defending Southern Connecticut Conference champions and advanced to the Class L state final in each of the last two seasons. Cheshire defeated Norwalk in 2011 and lost to Darien last year. The Rams entered Tuesday’s game with Sheehan at 3-1, their lone loss at the hands of Leckey’s Tigers.
“People may consider us a top team, and I do believe that we have that potential, but right now, we are ignoring that pressure,” Dunham said. “I know that people have noticed our recent success, but Cheshire field hockey was successful long before I took over. Arlene Salvati and Mimi Duran were my predecessors and they are coaching legends.
“Cheshire, like Hand, Guilford and Branford, has been in many state championships. Every year we have to assess our strengths and weaknesses, independent from what outsiders know or assume about our team. We have a brand new defense consisting of four new starters with a freshman, two sophomores, and a junior. We are putting our own pressure on ourselves to better our defensive game. We need to improve upon our defense in order to do well in the postseason.”
Dunham said the strength of the Rams is their core group of five seniors: Federico, a midfielder and reigning Register Area MVP, forwards Emma Farrel and Olivia Larson, midfielder Danielle Bellantonio and goalie Maddy Levy.
“Those five seniors have shown complete dedication to improving our team,” Dunham said. “They understand how inexperienced we are and they are committed to improving their individual games as well as the young team below them. Michelle controls the entire game with her game intelligence and elite skills.
“Emma creates so many opportunities on attack. Danielle has been our secret weapon this season, although she’s not so secret anymore. Her skills are so refined that sometimes we mistake Michelle and Danielle for each other on the field. Olivia is an excellent leader on and off the field. She is the team motivator. Maddy has stepped in confidently with the starting goalkeeper position. She is athletic and has done a nice job so far.”
Federico and Larson are co-captains and have been impressed with the team’s closeness this season.
“We bonded so well as a team this summer,” Federico said. “We built up our team chemistry and it showed in our first few games. Our strength the last few years has been on defense. This year it’s our speed and ball movement. Maddy has improved so much in goal, she’s quick on her feet. Danielle Bellantonio has also improved and has been on a roll on offense.”
Larson said one reason for the Rams’ success this season has been the seniors’ passion for the game.
“We all just love this sport so much,” Larson said. “And the juniors are such a huge supportive class for us, too. We always make sure before every game that everyone is focused. We go in with the idea that we will go all out, play hard start to finish and give it everything we can on the field.”
While Dunham appreciates the Rams’ recent success, she is always searching for improvement.
“I think, as coaches, we’re never quite satisfied, we can always improve,” Dunham, said. “It has been a tremendously positive experience for me to see the girls succeed year to year. Personally, though, I am always looking for ways to improve as a coach. Fortunately I am surrounded in the New Haven area by some of the most seasoned and successful coaches in the state with Sue (Leckey), (Guilford’s) Kitty Palmer, (Branford’s Cathy (McGuirk), and (North Branford’s) Babby (Nuhn).
“I feel so lucky to be able to pick their brains about the game. They have so much knowledge not only about the sport, but also about what it takes to create and maintain a strong program.”
Dunham’s team outlook has changed a bit.
“Our focus has gone from improving individual skill in inexperienced athletes to working on our teamwork skills,” Dunham said. “The inexperience has made it a bit more difficult for us to connect our passing game, so I am hoping to strengthen that portion of our game.”
Federico sticking with Quinnipiac choice
Federico, despite making an early commitment to play field hockey at Quinnipiac, has been deluged with recruiting offers from other Division I colleges. On Monday, she made one thing perfectly clear.
“There is nothing that would change my mind, I definitely want to play field hockey at Quinnipiac,” Federico said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Added Dunham: “Michelle has wanted to go to Quinnipiac since she was in seventh grade, so it seemed like an easy decision for her to go there. She is from a wonderfully tight-knit and loving family. Going to college 15 minutes down the road will allow her family to see every game.”
Dunham considers Federico the best high school field hockey player in the state this season.
“I would never have believed that a player as talented as Michelle could have improved so much on her skill this past summer, but she has shattered my expectations,” Dunham said. “She is such a talent. Coaches from around the state have mentioned that they had seen Michelle play this summer and were floored by her level of play.
“College coaches were still knocking down her door this summer. When the time came to finally see her, I was beyond impressed by her skill. She is the paradigm for what a hockey coach looks for in an athlete. She’s smart, fit, dedicated and incredibly talented.”
McGuirk getting closer to 500
Branford’s Cathy McGuirk is on the verge of reaching career win No. 500. The Hornets are 2-3 so far, improving McGuirk’s overall record to 492-104-62-9.