The University of Maine’s field hockey team finished 10th in the country in scoring a year ago, averaging 3.25 goals per game.
With six of their top seven scorers returning to go with a veteran back line and two redshirt senior goalkeepers, the Black Bears have a legitimate chance to secure their first ever NCAA tournament berth.
UMaine was close to doing so two years ago when it went 19-4 but lost to Albany 2-0 in the America East championship game and didn’t earn an at-large bid.
The America East tournament champion earns an automatic berth to the NCAA tourney.
UMaine was 13-7 a year ago and was ousted in the first round of the AE tourney by the University of California 3-2.
“We are returning a great team and we’re more experienced,” said 11th year head coach Josette Babineau whose team was picked to win the AE East Division and will begin the season as the nation’s 24th-ranked team.
“But Albany and New Hampshire are still going to be good so we’re going to have to play well,” Babineau said.
Michelle Simpson, UMaine’s first year associate head coach who spent the previous eight seasons as an assistant at Albany, said this has been “my best preseason in my nine years of coaching.
“We’re already pretty far along with what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to play. We have a very talented group of individuals,” said Simpson, a former All-American at Albany.
Junior central midfielder Casey Crowley headlines the list of returnees. Crowley was the team’s leading scorer last year with 10 goals and 10 assists and she was an All-AE East Division and Division I All-Northeast Region choice.
Junior forward Libby Riedl (7 goals, 12 assists) was the second-leading point-getter and junior center back Samantha Wagg (9 & 6) was tied for third with the departed Danielle Aviani.
Wagg, who is extremely dangerous in penalty corners, was an All-AE East Division selection and a second-team All-Northeast Region selection.
Senior forward Maddy Cummings had a breakout junior season as the Belfast native was the top goal scorer with 11. Cummings also had an assist and she led the team in game-winning goals with four.
Riedl and Cummings are joined up front by sophomore Brianna Ricker (7 & 2), who earned an AE All-Rookie team spot.
Brittany Smith, a sophomore who wasn’t eligible to play last year, junior Lydia Gavner (3 & 1), Old Town freshman Brooke Sulinski and Garland freshman Abby Webber will supply depth at forward.
“We have a very dangerous forward line,” said Babineau.
“We have a lot of attacking players on this team and that’s one of the most exciting things,” said Simpson.
Crowley is accompanied in the midfield by junior Ella Mosky (3 & 9) and sophomore Riley Field (3 & 4) of Sidney, who was an All-AE Rookie team pick.
Freshmen Lydia Dexter from Oakland, a former teammate of Field’s at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, and Hana Davis will also be in the midfield along with Clinton sophomore Lilla Tilton-Flood, who played in seven games a year ago and had an assist. Smith is also an option in the midfield.
Junior Emily Hindle, who played in all 20 games last year and started 18, provides UMaine with a reliable left back alongside Wagg. Freshman Cassandra Mascarenhas has earned the right back slot. Sophomore Morgan Anson, who played in nine games a year ago, will also see duty in the back.
“One of our goals is to improve a little bit defensively and limit the short corners we concede,” said Simpson. “We want to clean up our tackling at the back and make sure we’re working together as a unit.”
Goalkeepers Emma Cochran (7-3 record, 1.46 goals-against average, .714 save percentage) and Emily Corbett (6-4, 2.22, .444) have typically each played a half in every game the past two years.
That will change this season.
“Two years ago, it worked out well. Both played well. But, last year, they didn’t get into the same rhythm,” said Babineau, who will stick with the goalkeeper that wins the job.
“We’ll make a decision early and see how it goes,” said Babineau.
Cochran has the inside track as Corbett is nursing a minor injury.
UMaine, which has played exhibition games against No. 16 Boston University (2-0 loss) and Holy Cross (6-2 win), opens the season at Providence on Friday at 1 p.m. before entertaining Quinnipiac on Sunday at noon.