By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle

In 1997, Emmaus (Pa.) had one of the most dominant seasons any field hockey team has ever had. The defending Class AAA champions, producers of too many Division I prospects to count, gave up a goal one year ago.

In 1998, Garden City (N.Y.) had an equally dominating season in the tough world of southeastern New York hockey. The team, after going through a scoreless tie in its first game, won 20 straight games, including the Class B final after overtime and a series of alternating penalty corners to determing the victor.

In addition, Winslow (Maine) was able to win all 18 games on its schedule by shutout on its way to the state championship.

In this era of no-offside hockey, to have one team tie and two others break the all-time federation record for fewest goals allowed in a season is absolutely amazing. Here below are some of the greatest defensive performances in the recorded history of American scholastic field hockey:

 GA  School  State  Year
 0  Garden City  NY  1998
 0  Winslow  ME  1998
 1  Emmaus  PA  1997
 1  Newark William Penn  DE  1994
 1  Emmaus  PA  1994
 1  San Diego Serra  CA  1984
 1  San Diego Serra  CA  1983
 1  San Diego Serra  CA  1980
 1  San Diego Morse  CA  1977

The stories behind these seasons are as different as the three teams.

Emmaus plays in Pennsylvania, perhaps the nation's strongest state when it comes to producing players with skills and aggression. The level is such that most private schools have formed leagues outside of the PIAA to avoid being beaten badly game after game by the public-school teams.

In southeastern New York, the area combining Westchester County and Long Island is not only strong, but no stranger to record-breaking field hockey. The best offensive team of all-time -- Centereach (N.Y.) -- was in its heyday in the early 1980s, thanks to the heroics of the Fuchs sisters: Lauren , Dana, and Tracey. It was the latter who scored an unheard-of 82 goals in the 1983 season.

Maine's field hockey pedigree is no less prestigious, especially when it comes to goalkeepers. A pair of Maine goalies appear in the list of all-time consecutive shutouts: Kim Waddell of Madawaska posted 12 straight shutouts in 1977, and Robyn Mills of Sacopee Valley administered 11 straight blankings in 1981.

So, what has helped Emmaus, Winslow, and Garden City post three of the best field hockey seasons ever? Naturally, there are contrasts and similarities.

All of the teams, of course, featured wide-open attacks which kept the pressure off the defense. The 1997 Emmaus attack of Autumn Welsh, Katy Potter, and Carrie Phillips not only kept possession of the ball in the offensive end of the field, but prevented opponents from building attacks in the midfield.

"The forwards were keeping possession, tackling back, and helping our teammates," Welsh said. "But if all else failed, our four backs (Missy Grossman, Liz Reese, Brittany Butler, and Kristin Barlow) were incredible, and stopped everything."

Garden City's 1998 front seven, led by juniors Maggie O'Neill and Mary Beth Hogan, kept the ball in the attack end of the field for extended periods of their games. Indeed, the attack was intense enough that only 11 shots were allowed in the first 19 games of the season.

Winslow's front six were led by senior right winger Kristy Ferran, who was able to hold together an attack which featured four sophomores.

"We graduated so many seniors, and we thought it would be really shaky for a while," said Winslow coach Brenda Beckwith. "We not only graduated our entire defense, but our strength up the middle: our center forward and center midfield."

The attacks were a big reason that the defensive numbers were so sparkling for Winslow, Garden City and Emmaus. The defenses, while excellent, were a study in contrast.

The Emmaus defense of Grossman, Reese, Butler, Barlow, and goalkeeper Audrey Latsko were all upperclasswomen. The four backs were all seniors; Latsko was an experienced junior.

"In the beginning of the season, we knew our defense was strong," said Welsh, now at the University of Maryland. "But all of these shutouts added up, and we realized about 12 or 13 games into the season that we had this streak going. We kept it going as long as we could."

Throughout the 1997 regular season, the Hornets piled on shutout after shutout against the state's best programs. And even through District 11 and PIAA state tournament play, Emmaus' shutout streak remained constant until the Hornets finally gave up a goal late in the state tournament.

"It wasn't necessarily a goal (to not give up a goal all season)," Welsh said. "It was a game-by-game goal, but it became a long-term thing."

Winslow also had a senior-dominated defense, with three backs and a sweeper in front of four-year starting goalkeeper Emily Roy. The lone non-senior starter on the Black Raiders' back line was, however, a freshman: left fullback Katie Flaherty.

"We put her in because of her speed and skills," Beckwith said. "The thing is, she has no fear; she's a calm, level-headed player."

Despite having to fill out a graduated backfield from the 1997 state championship team, the rest of the backline had playing experience: Sarah Belanger, Kristy Bronsberg, and right fullback Jen Mansfield, who alternated with sophomore Caryn Campbell.

"I did not expect (the no-goal season) to happen beause of the importance of defense in field hockey," Beckwith said. "I don't know what happened; it was just phenomenal."

Meanwhile, Garden City was dead solid perfect despite using a different kind of defense: two fullbacks, a sweeper, and a goalkeeper, none of whom were seniors. Indeed, the keystone of the group -- sweeper Jamie Cohen -- was a sophomore during the 1998 season.

Despite that young defense, it was a team focused on winning the state championship, just like Emmaus the year before.

"We all knew what our goal was," said Garden City head coach Diane Chapman. "Even before we made it to states, we said, 'We're not coming home until we bring it all back.' "

And in the final, thanks to a 1-0 win over Lakeland in a second round of alternating penalty corners, Garden City did.

"The night before the state final, we had a team meeting," Chapman said. "I told them, 'To me, to be state champions, and being scored upon, is still the same as being state champions.' ".

Beckwith's philosophy was similar, and it was shared by all the members of the Winslow team.

"Never once was it, 'We're not going to give up a goal,' " she said. "The big picture was much more important."

Part of the reason why the Black Raiders were able to focus was because of the intense Roy, a true student of the game of field hockey.

"Emily sets the tone defensively," Beckwith said. "For her, it's, 'Let's just win the game.' "

"A lot of credit," says Roy, "has to go to the other 10 members of the team. We passed, talked, and got along with each other."

And in the Maine Class "B" final, Roy not only won her 18th game of the season, it was her 19th straight shutout and 53rd in her career, all of which are among the best scholastic performances in National Federation history. Most importantly, it was Winslow's second straight championship and third in six seasons.

"It's one of those things people write books about or make movies about if anyone cared about it," Beckwith said. "I've been trying to figure out how it happened. Was it coaching? No. Was it our athletes? Not really, since other teams have good athletes, too. Was it our level of competition? Ours is as good as elsewhere."

"We like the idea that this record cannot be beaten," said Winslow attacker Ashley Sennett. "It can only be tied."

All three teams had different sets of motivation from previous seasons. Garden City's motivation was in trying to regain a state championship not won in 1997. Winslow's motivation was to maintain its championship form of 1997, which it did.

Emmaus, on the other hand, had its one-goal season of 1997 while trying to maintain championship form for a fourth consecutive season. However, the Emmaus' 1998 season showed the pitfalls of trying to regroup for a run at a fifth straight PIAA championship in Class AAA.

"We started off the year very bumpy," said Emmaus head coach Susan Butz-Stavin. "We ended up with a tie against a team we outshot something like 53-2, then we gave up a goal in the last 15 seconds. Then we played (Buckingham) Central Bucks East (Pa.), who we outcornered and outshot, but we couldn't find the goal cage."

While the Hornets were not as perfect as in 1998, they still instilled the kind of palpable sense of anticipation few other teams could, despite having to replace more than two-thirds of the starting lineup because of graduation or injury. Emmaus, though it made the state championship through District 11, fell short of the state championship.

"We know how we want to play, and that's always in the back of our mind," Butz-Stavin said. "And we don't want to lose sight of that. The beat goes on."