Senior-led Hempfield relishes run to WPIAL field hockey playoffs

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Wednesday, November 3, 2021 | 11:37 AM


You could say Hempfield’s early exit from the WPIAL field hockey playoffs has cast a persistent pall of doubt over a program that, until this year, hadn’t even sniffed a postseason opportunity. But it did little to break the Spartans’ spirit.

Not that the coaches and players were dwelling on their 4-1 loss to North Allegheny on Oct. 26, but they were hoping for just a little more in an exciting season of firsts.

Like, maybe a chance to play for a WPIAL championship?

With only four teams entered in the Class 3A playoff field, No. 3 Hempfield wasn’t even attached to the lowest seed. But the Spartans struggled to adjust to their new surroundings in a playoff atmosphere against No. 2 North Allegheny, a perennial contender boasting multiple WPIAL championships.

After all, this is a Hempfield program that hadn’t enjoyed as much as a .500 season until going 10-6-1 this year.

“I think we played on our heels a little bit,” first-year Hempfield coach Nicole Schmitt said. “I don’t know that it was one thing you can point to: the weather, playing on a bigger scale, facing a team we’d never played before?

“It got into their heads a little. Funny as it might seem, they could have been looking further ahead. That’s an easy thing to do.”

Especially when you haven’t competed for the right to play for a championship and a berth in the PIAA playoffs. Hempfield’s season, however, shouldn’t be considered a failure, those associated with the team say.

Ask Ashlyn Radocaj, one of eight outgoing Spartans seniors. She said it was a blast to play for the school’s first winning team in field hockey.

“It’s been so much fun. It’s been super unreal,” she said. “I didn’t think we’d do what we did when the season began. I didn’t want it to end.”

Hempfield’s previous best season in the program’s near 20-year existence (2009) ended with a 4-6 section record. The Spartans were 1-9 a year ago, making this year’s turnaround to an 8-4 section mark a remarkable feat.

“My expectations going in? I didn’t have any,” Schmitt said.

“I just wanted to see where we were and go from there. As things progressed, the girls started to hear what I was saying. I thought probably about halfway through the season that we were good enough to get into the playoffs. The thought had always been there, ‘Let’s just get above .500.’ They exceeded my expectations.”

Radocaj, the Spartans’ third-leading scorer, said Schmitt and her husband, assistant coach Steve Schmitt, brought a fresh outlook to the girls when they took over the struggling program.

“Having these coaches brought some different perspective,” said Radocaj, who scored 14 goals with seven assists this season. “We really trained, and our senior class continued to work together. We’d been together for a while and had a pretty good season when we were on the JV team (in 2018).

”Before the season started here, we wanted to put it together, and after the year got going and we won a few games, we really started to push ourselves and gain some confidence.”

In their first playoff game, the Spartans were competitive for most of the way. They trailed North Allegheny, 2-0, at halftime before cutting the deficit to 2-1 late in the third quarter.

Top-seeded Pine-Richland won its third consecutive Class 3A championship on Saturday, beating North Allegheny, 3-1, after earlier advancing with a 2-1 victory over No. 4 Peters Township in the other semifinal.

Hempfield, though, Nicole Schmitt said, proved it was worthy of its inclusion in the WPIAL playoff field.

“I am certainly proud of those girls,” she said. “(The playoff) wasn’t our best game. We let North Allegheny dictate matters. But overall, they’ve exceeded our expectations. I can’t tell you the comments I’ve gotten from other coaches, other parents, teachers … how wonderful it is.”

Nine seniors helped Hempfield to its most successful year, including three who finished as the Spartans’ top scorers.

Amara Forsyth led the way with 26 points on 19 goals and seven assists, Delphine Vandael was second with 25 points on 18 goals and seven assists and Radocaj finished third with 21 points.

Also, goalkeeper Shannon Lutz made a total of 54 saves and allowed 26 goals in 17 games for the Spartans, who expect to return four juniors from this year’s team.

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