By Phil Shore
New England Soccer Journal
It's a group that hadn't experienced too much success in their time on campus before this year. They've combined for a 17-29-8 record, with their best year coming in 2014, when the team went 8-8-2 overall and 6-6-2 in the Northeast-10, earning a trip to the conference quarterfinals, where they lost in overtime. The most disappointing season was the following year, when the team could not build on their success the year prior and finished 4-10-4.
Rather than letting the results weigh the team down, however, the rising seniors used it as motivation.
"Right after that season ended, we were ready to get back into it," said senior Claire O'Brien (West Hartford, Conn.), who has been a starter since her freshman year. "Every game was so close. We knew we had the potential. Now we're seeing the potential. We were really inspired. This is a season we've been waiting for, the 10 seniors. We want to bring it home, get to playoffs and get as far as we can."
After a good spring, the Skyhawks are playing inspired soccer to begin the 2016 season, matching and surpassing their win total from a year ago with a 6-0 record, which includes winning their first-ever Catholic Cup championship.
The results may be different in 2016, but the team mostly is not. Stonehill graduated only one senior and has 10 seniors this season.
Wilson believes having such a large group of seniors this season has made a big difference.
"The leadership from them heading into their senior year, they've put in a lot of hard work," she said. "Their mentality is trickling down to the freshmen. The freshmen are bringing a different style and the balance is there. It's a combination of mental and physical success."
One thing the players highlight as a reason for the team's success is chemistry. O'Brien has started every single game since her freshman season. Senior goaltender Jamie Block (Georgetown, Mass.) has been the team's No. 1 keeper since her sophomore year. Add in sophomore defender Erin O'Brien – Claire's sister who also has started every game in her career – and fellow senior defender Brianna Duserick, and you have a cohesive unit.
"At first, I was nervous," she said. "I didn't know if we'd get along. We've always been close but playing next to each other there's always back and forth. It works well. I love playing with her. It's a familiar face that I know I can trust her."For O'Brien, it is a pleasure to play with her fellow defensive seniors as well as her sister.
By playing heavy minutes early in their careers, the players have been given time to grow and improve, and now lead the best defensive unit in the conference.
The team is first in the NE-10 in goals-against average (0.50) and is tied for second in shutouts (three). Block – who has played every minute between the posts for Stonehill – also is first in the conference in save percentage (.885) and wins (six), and was named NE-10 Goalkeeper of the Week twice.
"Chemistry is something we harp on a lot," Block said. "The chemistry between the defense and goalkeeper, playing with each other so long everyone knows their strengths and weaknesses. It's so important to have that chemistry and trust with the goalkeeper."
Despite the struggles in 2015, Block and O'Brien were awarded with All-Conference and All-New England honors. The two stalwarts were named co-captains for the second consecutive year for the 2016 season, and Wilson is pleased with their performances.
"First and foremost, (Block's) an unbelievable athlete," Wilson said of her goalkeeper. "Her focus and determination to be the best, it's her spirit. Jamie is a step above. She sees the potential and believes in her teammates, which puts more pressure on herself. She knows if she does well, the team does well."
Wilson called O'Brien a "staple" to the back line.
"Whether she's involved in every play or a few plays, she's going to come up big," she said. It helps her know her responsibilities. She's a wall. If we have a solid defensive game, it's going to give us the best chance to win."
While every team has championship aspirations prior to the start of the season, the Skyhawks defense set their sights on a group goal.
"Our back four proves to be so strong. It's the same as last year so it's building more experience on top of that," Block said. "Harping on the fact that we want zero in the back, it's one of our goals. We've been playing in the mindset."
The success in the back also has helped the team's offense relax and become more efficient.
In 2015, the team averaged less than a goal per game and had a .074 shooting percentage. They were shut out in 11 of their 18 games, including four 1-0 losses and two 0-0 ties. In 2016, the team has averaged three goals per game with a .212 shooting percentage. They've scored multiple goals in four games, including an 8-1 romp over NE-10 foe Saint Rose.
"Jamie is our first line of attack. She can distribute far up the field or to a defender," Wilson said. "Going forward, our team starts there, and maybe we can take some risks. All over it's about interchanging with each other so we can defend as a unit and attack as a unit. Our offense has picked it up this year. The numbers we care about will be in a couple months, but the confidence is there."
It has been a tremendous turnaround for Stonehill thus far. Stonehill climbed to No. 18 in the NSCAA Division 2 rankings after the bright start. This season marked the Skyhawks' first appearance in the national poll since 2000.
After ending the unranked streak, the team is looking to do something else that hasn't been done since 2011.
"We want to make it as far as we can. Especially for us seniors, not making it last year, this is our final way to leave this sport and team, leaving it with something to hold on to," O'Brien said. "What a lot of people want is having a home playoff game. It hasn't happened in a long time."
To read the rest of the October 2016 issue of the New England Soccer Journal click here.