Field Hockey Preview: No shortage of challenges for Clippers’ new coach

GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO | Last year, in his seventh and final season as Greenport/Southold/Shelter Island’s coach, Todd Gulluscio guided the Clippers to their first playoff berth since at least 1987.

Even under ordinary circumstances, Rebecca Lillis would have a lot on her plate, taking over as the Greenport/Southold/Shelter Island field hockey team’s new coach. But Lillis may have even bigger things to worry about than just a varsity team, like the program and the future of the sport that she loves.

Because of low numbers, Greenport/Southold/Shelter Island does not have a junior varsity team this season. Lillis said other schools have seen junior varsity teams fall by the wayside as well, and it concerns her.

“It’s a dying sport right now on the North Fork,” said Lillis, who has 15 players on her varsity team.

In an attempt to promote the sport, the Clippers will stage an alumni game for the second year in a row before their Oct. 6 home game against Pierson/Bridgehampton.

Lillis and her players have their work cut out for them on the field as well. The Clippers not only lost 11 players from last year’s team, but they will play a tougher schedule this season. “It’s going to be a hard season,” she said.

That is their reward for reaching the playoffs last year for the first time since at least 1987. Todd Gulluscio’s seventh season as the Clippers’ coach was his best. The team finished in sixth place in Suffolk County Division III. A 3-1 loss to Harborfields in a Suffolk Class B Tournament outbracket game put the finishing touch on a 10-7 season. Gulluscio, who remains the Greenport athletic director, finished with a 28-80 (.259) career record. Forty-one of those losses came in his first three years.

Lillis, a former goaltender for the Clippers before she graduated from Southold High School in 1999, coached the junior high school team for two years before running the junior varsity team for the past two years. And now she has a new challenge.

“I’m excited to be back,” she said. “Todd has been a great mentor … for me. I learned a lot from him.”

Sarah Tuthill, a sophomore center midfielder who scored the Clippers’ goal in the playoff game, remains one of the team’s strongest players. She was an all-league player last year. “She is a positive role model on the field and off the field,” said Lillis.

Tuthill returns along with five other starters from last year: senior left wing Wendy Peterson, eighth-grade right wing Toni Esposito, eighth-grade defender Madison Tabor and eighth-grade left midfielder Katie Tuthill, who is Sarah’s sister.

Brandi Gonzalez, a senior goalie, filled in for two games when Alexis Reed (Wilkes University in Pennsylvania) was injured. Kyla Smiley, a freshman with only one year of field hockey experience at the junior high level, shows a lot of potential and will play left inner, said Lillis. Victoria Hilton, a junior, is also expected to be on the front line.

Daniele Freeman, a senior defender, may find herself in the starting lineup along with junior defender Mairi Creedon and sophomore midfielder Liz Powe. Also new to the team are freshman midfielder Suzie Bunchuck, sophomore forward Stephanie Clark, freshman goalie Danielle Fauteux and senior forward Courtney Weber.

“I feel like I have the nicest group of girls,” Lillis said. “They embrace one another. They’re friendly with one another. They’re kind of the definition of sportsmanship in my book.”

Lillis said the front line looks good, but the defense has to be built up. Qualifying for the postseason last year was a big step, she said, but the graduation of 11 seniors took its toll.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but I think my team is up for it,” she said. “They walked away with smiles on their faces last year from that playoff game. We’re going to give it our all.”

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