Middletown, N.J. - Last fall was an epic turnaround season in every way for the Middletown South field hockey team.

The Eagles rebounded in a big way after winning only five games in 2017, going 19-3 and advancing all the way to the finals of the NJSIAA North 2, Group 3 tournament.

That type of success is what Middletown South will be gunning for again this season as the team looks to build off its successful 2018 campaign.

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“We’re kind of teetering between building, but we have enough experience that we can be a very good team,” said Middletown South field hockey coach Jordan Hickman. “We have a great core group of midfielders returning. I’m going to set the bar high for them and I am confident that they are going to meet it and exceed it.”

Middletown South will depend on its core strength of experienced midfielders to be the glue, as Hickman says, to keep the team together on the field both offensively and defensively this season. 

Junior Gianna Racioppi and senior Kelsey O’Keefe head that group of core midfielders for Middletown South.

Racioppi put together a great sophomore campaign with 11 goals and five assists.

Along with fellow classmate Lia Simonello, who is coming off a breakout season of her own, Middletown South has a great one-two punch in the midfield and up top with Racioppi and Simonello to lead the way offensively this season.

Simonello was the team’s second leading scorer last season with 14 goals and had 7 assists as well. The junior has been on a tear during the preseason for the Eagles, scoring 6 goals in the team’s final three scrimmages.

“We have a good strong team back this year,” Racioppi said. “We’ve been connecting as a team very well from the start. We’re getting our passes off well and communicating better.”

Junior Madison Cigolini will be another key impact player in the Eagles’ offense this fall. 

Stepping into a starting role as the team’s center forward after seeing some time as a reserve last season, Hickman expects Cigolini to have a breakout year for Middletown South.

O’Keefe is one of only two seniors on the team this season and will try to bring her senior leadership on the field to help the Eagles win this season.

“Being a senior and a captain, I want to personally, and for the team as a whole, live up to the expectations set from last year,” O’Keefe said. “I’m going to try to keep everyone positive. Keep the energy up. Making sure that we’re all connected and together on the field.”

Juniors Renee Lioudakis and Emily Salvadore round out the rest of the core midfielders expected to lead the way for Middletown South.

On defense, sophomore center back Peyton Kenney will anchor the Eagles’ back line after a nice first-year at the varsity level as a freshman.

Kenney is an all-around great athlete, lettering in field hockey, basketball and lacrosse as a freshman. With her talented field hockey skills in toe as well, Hickman has high expectations for Kenney this fall.

Junior Bella Unrath returns for the Eagles with some experience from last season and will flank Kenney on the back line as a left back. 

The biggest challenge for Middletown South going into this season will be replacing four-year starting goalie Sam Messina in the cage.

Freshman Dusty Prancl and junior Lauren Palmadesso are both in the running for the starting goalkeeper spot.

Kim Winters, Kylie Doyle, Christine Ryan and Sophia Raymond round out the roster for Middletown South.

The Eagles will focus on continuing to grow as a unit early on in the season to help them get in place to achieve their goals this fall, starting with winning the Shore Conference A-North Division for the second year in a row.

“I would love to win the division for a second year in a row,” Hickman said. “We went 12-0 in the division last year. In our division alone, we have good competition. Colts Neck and Freehold Township are two spots below us in the preseason Top-10. Those games will say a lot going forward.” 

Middletown South ranks sixth in the Shore Conference preseason rankings.

A long run in the Shore Conference Tournament and a trip back to the sectional championship game are the other long-term goals the team has for the season.

After coming up short in the sectional final last year, the Eagles are confident they can make it back this season and this time come out on top.

“Knowing that we’ve done it before and the way we’ve played in the preseason, I’m confident that we can have the same success we had last year,” O’Keefe said. “We want to make it back to the finals and hopefully win it this time.”

Middletown South opens up the season at home against Matawan on Tuesday.

Follow Steven Bassin on Twitter @SBassin_Sports