Melissa Panasci’s father, Sam, didn’t know the first thing about the intricacies of field hockey. But he knew his daughter loved to play the game.
So nearly every day he’d bring Melissa to the field, set up in the cage with no pads on and played mock goalie as his daughter unleashed shot after shot on him. She left him with plenty of bruises, but he never complained.
“He loved it,” Melissa said. “He loved helping me get better and he was always very athletic himself, so he was a huge part of my success.”
All that work helped Panasci become one of the top field hockey players in the nation, as both a high school student and a collegian. At Miller Place in the early ’90s, she was the centerpiece of one of the greatest dynasties in Long Island field hockey history as the Panthers advanced to four straight state championship games, winning two, during her high school career. Over her final three seasons, the Panthers posted a combined record of 63-3.
“It’s some of the best memories of my life,” Panasci said, reflecting on her playing days.
As scorers go, few could ever match the prowess of Panasci. She scored 101 goals in her final two seasons, a higher total than some teams. Her senior season in 1993 went down as one of the best ever. She scored an astounding 60 goals, which at the time was the second highest single-season total ever in the nation. She currently ranks fifth all-time.
“Of all the players, she was probably the No. 1 player I had,” said former Miller Place coach Judy Kopelman, who in 2008 was elected into the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame. “She was an absolutely outstanding athlete. Her dedication to being No. 1 was evident with the time she put in after practice.”
Panasci credited Kopelman as being a huge part of her success. She could remember seeing Kopelman for the first time as a sixth-grader when she would introduce the sport to girls in physical education classes. She immediately took a liking to the sport and a few short years later was already a constant threat around the goal.
She also played basketball and softball throughout her playing days in high school, but field hockey always remained her primary focus.
After high school, Panasci attended Duke University, where she blossomed into one of the top scorers in NCAA history.
From 1994-97 she scored 91 goals and tallied 200 points. She’s currently 19th all-time in Division I history in career points, and she’s 12th all-time in both career goals and points per game. She still ranks second all-time in Atlantic Coast Conference history in career goals and is sixth in career points. She also holds the Duke record for career goals.
She was a third-team All-American in both 1995 and 1996. In 2002 she was selected to the ACC’s 50th Anniversary team. Only three other Duke players cracked the list.
“I feel like all my hard work paid off,” Panasci said. “When I got to Duke I immediately started when I was a freshman on the team. I worked hard to achieve those goals so for the stats to still be up there is definitely an honor.”
After college Panasci, now 34, decided not to pursue a shot at the U.S. National team, so she could begin her teaching career. She started working at Nassakeag Elementary School in the Three Village School District, where she remains today.
Panasci said she still thinks about the national team.
“At the time we had worked so hard and I had played so many years in a row of really killing myself. At that time I really just wanted to mold into the regular life,” she said. “I was really looking forward to teaching. I had gotten my degree and was really looking forward to coming home.”
Kopelman said she still thinks Panasci would have made the U.S. team had she continued.
A decade before Panasci, the Panthers featured another goal-scoring machine in Maryann Wojcik. From 1983-86 she scored 131 goals, one of the top careers in both the state and nation. As a senior she scored 50, which stood as the school record until Panasci’s senior season.
Kopelman said she lucked out with Wojcik because at the time, Miller Place did not have soccer for girls.
“She played with the boys soccer team in junior high, and in ninth grade I managed to talk her into playing field hockey,” Kopelman said.
Having never played the sport before, Wojcik’s athleticism allowed her to excel in field hockey right from the start.
“She had probably a harder shot than Panasci, but she didn’t have quite the stick-work skill,” Kopelman said.
Wojcik didn’t play field hockey in college and went on to become a special education teacher. Kopelman said she saw Wojcik a few years ago and she had adopted children from Russia.