ORONO — The University of Maine field hockey team set a school record with 72 goals last season.
And its four leading scorers are back.
But if the Black Bears are to win their first-ever America East tournament championship, fourth-year coach Josette Babineau feels her team will have to be better in the defensive third.
“Our big focus is to be stronger in the defensive end,” said Babineau. “It’s one thing to score five or six goals in a game. But when you’re in close games, one goal can make a difference and the defensive side of play is big.”
Babineau lost three starting backs, two to graduation (Mallory Pollard and Ellen Andrews) and one to illness (Lelia Sacre), but the Maine coach began revamping her back line during the spring practice sessions by moving senior midfielders Courtney Veinotte of Canaan and Mallory Anderson to defense.
Veinotte, who had nine goals and three assists last year, and Anderson (1 & 7) are also two of the tri-captains.
“Courtney is fast, athletic and covers a lot of ground,” said Babineau, who led the Bears to a 12-7 record and a berth in the league semifinals where they lost 5-2 to eventual champion Boston University. “She’s also a very good tackler. Mallory is in her fifth year and has a lot of experience.”
Sophomore Zoe Adkins (2 & 0), chosen to the America East All-Rookie team, and freshman Alexa Binnendijk of Holland will join them in the back.
“I like it a more back there. There’s a lot more thinking and anticipation,” said Anderson. “I like being able to see what’s going on.”
All-America East second-team selections Stephanie Gardiner (10 & 8) and Maire Dineen (2 & 5) will be joined in an impressive midfield by senior Michelle Niedziejko (2 & 2). Dineen and Niedziejko may also see some duty in the back.
Gardiner has been a forward but Babineau feels Gardiner can help trigger the attack from her new central midfield spot with her intensity and speed and she can also “free up Maire [to attack] on the outside.”
The imposing front line features All-America East first-team pick Kelly Newton (16 & 10) and second-teamer Jocelyn Mitchell (16 & 5) along with Belfast’s Brittney Cummings (3 & 2).
Babineau said between her three forwards and midfielders Gardiner and Dineen, her Bears should be able to create a lot of scoring chances.
She also has several returnees off her penalty-corner units.
Junior Brittany Fleck (12-7, 2.61 goals-against average .725 save percentage) returns in goal but she is being pushed by newcomer Alicia Frisch, a sophomore from Calgary, Alberta. Sophomore transfer Sydney Kolysher is also an option.
“We’re stronger in goal than last year,” said Babineau.
Belfast’s Kallie Aldus, Jackson’s Molly Arute and Turner’s Megan Miller supply depth in the midfield along with Courtney Glynn and Corinth’s Kaitlynn Stymiest. Cassandra Mendonca plays up front and Glynn can also play forward. Aldus is capable of playing in the back.
America East All-Rookie forward Chelsea Wagner of Orono has decided not to play this year.
“We didn’t lose many players and we have a lot of strong returnees,” said Newton. “There’s always room for improvement and we’re focusing on our defensive play, starting with the forwards and all the way up through.”
Tri-captain Dineen said they have worked diligently on their defensive coverages and “pressure systems” to take away the opponents’ passing lanes.
“It’s going to be exciting to see how it all comes together,” said Veinotte. “We have a lot of experience and we also have a couple of solid new players who are really going to contribute to our lineup.”
Maine opens against visiting Providence College on Friday at 3 p.m.