ASHLAND, Va. – Before the season began, Field Hockey Head Coach Jess Weiss had a secret. A connection had come through and she had booked a team-bonding experience unlike any other that Yellow Jacket team had been able to do before. Many Randolph-Macon teams do team outings – movie nights, ropes courses – even white-water rafting. But what Weiss had worked up would stay with her team for years to come.
"Sometimes only focusing on hockey is counterproductive. There are so many ways for them to connect with each other and this trip provided that," Weiss said. "The world of sport presents opportunities these young women wouldn't otherwise have and them being able to do this together was really special."
The men and women of the nation's top law enforcement agency took in the Yellow Jackets one evening late in September at their Training Academy at Quantico. The agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed the student-athletes a trio of shooting ranges and weapons, the elite Hostage Rescue Team's office, toured the FBI Academy and participated in a self-defense course. The culmination of the nearly 4 hours at Quantico was a rescue scenario in which the team – paired up with FBI agents – had to rescue a distressed hostage. The latter was one of the most intense, but rewarding experiences for the student-athletes.
"We entered a building from different corners," said sophomore Kaylene Thomas (Suffolk, Va. / Lakeland). "In the center of the building was the hostage. Once we found the hostage, we carried the person out on a gurney 0.5 mile back to headquarters. Our hostage was a FBI agent who weighed roughly estimating 200 pounds or more. Only four of our teammates were allowed to carry the agent on the gurney. We had to communicate and switch off carrying the agent back to 'headquarters'. While going back, there were 'explosions', and smoke foggers. It really resembled what an actual encounter would be like in a safe manner."
That experience helped draw connections between hockey and what the agents have to do every day on their own field.
"Although the FBI and Randolph-Macon Field Hockey are two completely different things, one thing we have in common is communication," Thomas said. "Without communication, neither the FBI nor [us] would be able to achieve the set goal."
Of all of the various activities the team got to participate, the universal favorite was going through a self-defense training with the FBI Instructors.
"Many of our young women felt unprepared should a situation arise where they needed to protect themselves," Weiss said. "Our 45 minute session gave the team resources and confidence as well as first hand practice should they ever find themselves in an unfavorable situation. They truly felt empowered after that session."
"It makes you feel better knowing you do have certain skills if anything were to ever happen," said sophomore Ayanna Healy (Newport News, Va. / Woodside).
The impact of the trip on the team's on-field work was obvious. The team gained three games over its 2017-18 record and made an appearance in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Tournament for the second straight year. The team got huge, quality wins over NCAA Tournament team Rhodes as well as ODAC foes Washington and Lee and Bridgewater. But throughout the campaign, the trip to Quantico was something that came up in on-the-field discussions.
"Even a week later, we were bringing it up – like 'remember when we did this or remember when we did that at Quantico,'" said sophomore Hannah Gourley (Annapolis, Md. / Broadneck). "I heard it every day and its super cool to relate what we're doing with [the trip]."
That relationship helped forge another season that contines to build upon the foundation established when Weiss arrived three seasons ago.
"To have six of our nine losses be one-goal games shows a lot about the shift in mindset, investment in one another and our vision, the increased competitiveness at practice, and to their maturity as individual players," Weiss said. "While losing that many one goal games is heartbreaking, I truly believe competing in those high pressure situations and getting a glimpse of the great things they can accomplish, will propel us forward in the long run."
Defensively, the team excelled in not just close games – but really throughout the season. R-MC was fourth in the nation with 20 defensive saves in 2018. Sophomore Megan May (Hayes, Va. / Gloucester) led the unit with 12 of those defensive saves, which was the second-best mark in the nation. Freshman Sydney Duimstra (Montpelier, Va. / Deep Run) also tallied important defensive work, creating five defensive saves, fourth-best in the conference.
"Defensively we were very consistent, which is exactly what you want from your backs," Weiss said. "They were impressive all season and stifled some of the top attacking teams in the region this season." The unit only conceded more than two goals just four times in 17 games -- two of which were against top 15 teams.
The goalkeeping unit was a highly successful group as well.
"Ariel Salerno (Suffolk, Va. / Lakeland), Katie Thompson (Burke, Va. / Lake Braddock) and Gatlin Snyder (Powhatan, Va. / Powhatan) are incredibly close," Weiss said. "They compete against each other hard, they support one another and all want what's best for the team. Their varied skills sets make us better at practice and their efforts, combined with our defensive unit, brought our goals against average down to 1.74 from 3.5 last season. That much of an improvement is impressive." Randolph-Macon's goals-against-average was fourth-best in the conference this season.
Snyder was also one of the best goalies in the nation as well, tallying a .850 save percentage, best in the conference and sixth in the country. Her saves-per-game of 9.15 was also a conference best and was 15th in the country.
In the midfield, Randolph-Macon proved to improve as the team took ball control as a serious endeavor and worked to control the pace of play and move the ball to the attacking third.
"Our midfielders had an incredible shift in their poise and confidence," Weiss said. "We definitely competed in more games due to their ability to control possession and disrupt the transition of our opponents. Our depth in various positions increased our efficiency as our energy was sustained all game."
Once in the attacking third, the Yellow Jackets excelled at getting opportunities to set the pace and worked to get shots from an advantageous position.
"Our attackers definitely made great strides as we earned 95 more attacking penalty corners than we did last year," Weiss said. "We took better care of the ball and made good decisions in the circle."
The offense was led by sophomores Maria Teresa Ambrogi-Torres (Richmond, Va. / Trinity Episcopal School) and Austyn Faries (Richmond, Va. / Monacan) who each scored four goals. They were joined by freshman Catie Burnette (Williamsburg, Va. / Woodside) who also placed four in the cage. Fellow freshman Katie Brookman (Culpeper, Va. / Eastern View) was also key, scoring nine points on three goals and a team-leading three assists.
Ambrogi-Torres and fellow sophomore Georgia Drescher (Virginia Beach, Va. / Frank W. Cox) were named to the All-ODAC Second team while Snyder and sophomore Claire Magill (Moseley, Va. / Trinity Episcopal School) earned All-ODAC Third Team nods.
But through it all, the team was able to draw back on an experience that is likely to stick with them for a lifetime – while learning about themselves as well as an important national institution.
"I have so much respect for the men and women who serve this country, which happens in various forms," Weiss said. "To gain a better understanding of the little things that go into one branch of that changes your perspective on things and is very humbling for us."
"It forced us to push each other to face new fears and be uncomfortable," said Duimstra, the freshman defender. "Being supported by my teammates through the whole experience made everyone so much closer and gave us a lot of memories."