Coaches worry. It seems to come with the job. They worry about many things, some of which are out of their control.
During preseason training camp, Rebecca Lillis was worried first and foremost about her Greenport/Southold high school field hockey team’s defense. All of the team’s defenders last year were seniors. When they graduated, they left open positions that needed to be filled.
Imagine the relief felt by the Clippers coach at seeing those defensive holes patched up and the back line performing well early in the season.
“We were a little worried that we had some gaps to fill in, but so far, so good,” Lillis said. “We really found some key players back there so, actually, the whole team is happy with the defense right now.”
What’s not to be happy about? Through four games the Clippers (1-3 overall and in Suffolk County Division III) have acquitted themselves well. They allowed five goals and posted a shutout.
“I’m telling you, it couldn’t have worked out better with the defense,” said Lillis.
Not bad for three sophomores — Liz Clark, Zoe Medina and Isabelle Torres — playing in front of the team’s junior goalie, Katie Tuthill.
“I think we’ve been playing to the best of our abilities,” Clark said. “I mean, here and there we get like ahead of ourselves, but I think we’re pretty good.”
Tuthill, who is impacted more than anyone else by the play of the defense, has given a good review, too. She said she wasn’t worried about the defense before the season, although perhaps curious as to how it would look.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect because we really didn’t know our defense until a couple of weeks into the season,” she said. “I was just hoping for the best, that it wouldn’t be like 30 saves a game, so it’s been working out well. I am honestly very impressed.”
What helps the Clippers is they have both speed and skill on defense. Clark can air dribble, as can forwards Ale Cardi and Madison Tabor.
The Clippers’ start to the season has been a mix of encouragement and what may be described as just plain bad luck. Their first three games were one-goal losses: one by shootout, one by a forfeit after an injury to a key player, and another in which the injured player didn’t play.
In the season-opening game, the Clippers were tied with East Hampton, 1-1, through overtime before losing in a shootout.
Then there was misfortune in the second game. The Clippers were trailing, 1-0, to Shoreham-Wading River when they had to forfeit the second half after a ball deflected off a stick and struck a Clippers center midfielder, Toni Esposito, in the head. The injury required 18 stitches, and Esposito sat out the next game, a 2-1 loss to Port Jefferson in which she was clearly missed.
“Had we had Toni against Port Jeff, it might have been a different turnout for that game,” Lillis said. “She’s one of our key players. She’s playing center mid. She’s amazing when you watch her. You take one player out of the game, and it’s a different team, you know. Unfortunately, it’s like that. It shouldn’t be. We should be able to fill in for her, but she’s just that great at what she does.”
In addition, Tabor had been out of action for a few days with a pulled a muscle in her knee.
Both players are back on the field.
The Clippers had a lot to feel good about in their fourth game, a 6-0 defeat of Babylon. Tabor scored twice (giving her a team-leading three for the season) and the other goals came from Esposito, Cardi, Ashley Payne and Madison Hilton.
Tuthill didn’t have much work to do in that game, but she had ranked 11th in the county with 31 saves through three games. This is a comeback for Tuthill, who missed most of last season after suffering a concussion when she was kicked in the head in a game against Babylon.
The Clippers were to play Harborfields at home Monday, but that game was postponed until Tuesday so the Tornadoes could attend a funeral, according to Lillis. So, the Clippers practiced on Monday instead.
Another one of the positives for the Clippers has been the performance of a fast right winger, freshman Jules Atkins, who plays next to Tabor. Lillis said Atkins took herself out of a game this year because she said she wasn’t giving 110-percent effort.
Also, Lillis has been impressed by Clark’s work on defense and free hits.
“She’s having a tremendous season,” Lillis said. “She’s gotten a lot of recognition from other coaches and some officials. She’s playing really strong back there and it’s funny because her freshman year, she didn’t really care for that position, but she’s sticking with it, and she’s doing really well.”
The Clippers essentially replaced one Clark with another on defense. Clark’s older sister, Stephanie, was one of the senior defenders on last year’s team.
Liz Clark said that when she joined the team as a freshman, she was more interested in scoring goals than preventing them. “As a freshman, coming onto the team, all you want to do is score,” she said. Now, she said she realizes that “defense is just as important as offense.”
Medina, on the other hand, said she has liked playing defense ever since she took up the sport as an eighth grader. “No one else likes playing defense, but even in junior high, I loved it,” she said. “I think it’s just exciting to stop the ball and get it out of the circle.”
Defending is not always the most glamorous job, but a vital one, as Tuthill can attest.
“Defense is essential,” she said. “I mean, honestly, if you don’t have a good defense, you can’t have an offense. I know they had it in them. Finding the right place for the right people is what we really needed to figure out.”
Someone told Lillis that it seemed as if the field hockey gods have answered her prayers for a defense.
She said, “I need those field hockey gods to give me a couple of wins.”
Photo: Zoe Medina is one of the sophomore defenders who have helped shore up Greenport/Southold’s defense. (Credit: Garret Meade)