SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - South Plainfield High School field hockey’s Melissa Szeliga now has a year under her belt since transitioning into the head coaching role after serving as an assistant under Cheryl Hughes.
A former Tiger player herself, no one better understands what the program is all about. Szeliga, entering her second year at the helm, answered a few TAP Into questions over email last week.
TAP Into: Now that the season opener vs Metuchen is approaching, what do you think of your squad based on what you've seen during the preseason scrimmages/practices?
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Melissa Szeliga: I feel the girls are in a really good place starting the season. After the end of last season, they dedicated themselves to really improving the little things and focusing on getting stronger as a team. We reconstructed our summer workout program and with the help and leadership of our nine seniors, we were able to start preseason at a much better place than previous years. The girls were lifting, conditioning and working on their individual stick work all off season, so that once preseason officially started we were able to focus on our team game much more and build on more game situations. This group of girls is a really special one; they bring a focus and intensity to the field every day that allows our coaching staff to throw more advanced skills and concepts at them to keep competitors on their toes.
Which players do you expect to be very productive for your team and why? Offensively, defensively and in goal.
This season we are lucky to have a very strong senior and junior class. We have a lot of returning players from our 2014 season, who felt not only the success of last season’s 17-3-2 record, but more importantly, the disappointments of those 3 tough losses we took. They are returning working harder than ever to make this season even more memorable than last year. Returning to our backfield this season are Carly Miceli (Sr.), Nicole Goitiandia (Sr.) and Bec Ng (Sr.) who have great communication and organization of the backfield with the support of Steph Bohn (Sr.) in goal. The three of them are in sync with each other which make them a strong force to be reckoned with in our defensive end. Our midfield line consists of Meghan Hughes (Sr.), Mary McNeil (Jr.), Jen Grasso (So.) and Stephanie Boettger (Sr.); within this line there is a lot of speed, individual stick skills, good field awareness and great offensive movement. The four of them have been working very well together to move the ball down the field and have been creating a lot of options for us between the 25 yard lines. Our offensive line consists of Caity Hughes (Jr.) who brings tremendous speed, Nicole Zultowski (Jr.) who brings power and Angela Sanchez (Jr.) who can finish the ball in front of the cage. All of these student-athletes have the potential to be productive on a daily basis if we execute our game plan and stick to doing the little things correctly with intensity and focus.
Who are some potential breakthrough players that could emerge this season (maybe they were on the bench last year, or played on the JV or freshman levels)?
Angela Sanchez (Forward) Jr. - She was a swing player for us last season playing both Varsity and JV, but this year she will be an asset for our team with her individual elimination skills and tough shots on goal. She does a very nice job in front of the cage and can finish the ball strong.
Jen Grasso (Midfield) So. - Jen is a Sophomore coming off the Freshmen field last year. She is a very patient player, who has a lot of finesse and control with the ball. Jen has adapted well to our new formation of play and has been a strong defender on the right side for us. She also does a great job of both distributing the ball and getting a 2nd and 3rd shot off in the offensive circle.
Ashley Veliz (Midfield/Forward/Defender) Jr. - Ashley is the definition of a utility player. She was my go to player last season off the bench and this year she is filling in that same role. She has the ability to play anywhere on the field forward, midfield or back and does a very nice job of reading the field. She has a great understanding of our new press this season and has been a strong asset to the forward line. Ashley is the type of athlete that every coach wants, you can count on her to play anywhere and do anything you need her to do and she does it with intensity and a smile on her face. Then, if she doesn't understand something she is one of the first people to come ask for help because she is so eager to learn.
Steph Bohn (GK) Sr. - Steph brings a very strong and vocal presence to our defensive circle. She has worked very hard during the off season on her strength and it shows in her clears this season, which has helped get the ball out of our defensive end. We are looking for her to be very strong for us this season and be a valuable leader back there for us.
Key losses: How will you fill the voids left by last year's top seniors?
One way that we are filling the voids of some of our losses from last year's senior class was to change our formation. South Plainfield is traditionally known to play a 3-3-3-1-GK formation, but this season with the athleticism, fitness level and skill levels of this group, we were able to change our formation and utilize the tools and skill sets that we have. In doing so, I think is stronger as a whole because we have better support all over the field and the girls are generating more offensive power than we are traditionally used to. I look forward to seeing what this team will be capable of doing once they become even more comfortable with the formation further into our season.
Can the team repeat the success of its stellar 17-3-2 record last season?
Absolutely. This team is a very dedicated, intense and strong group of student-athletes. They are committed to both the individual goals that they have set forth for themselves, but more importantly the team goals that they are striving towards together as a collective unit. The potential in this group of girls is limitless and they have the ability to achieve whatever they set their minds to this season. I am really excited for this season. The coaching staff and I have seen the hard work they have put in this off season and preseason and are so proud of them. The last and only time that a South Plainfield Field Hockey team has won a Sectional Title was in 2005 when I was a Junior in High School. This team has a very similar work ethic and personality to that 2005 team. I feel like this group of girls has the talent and determination to surpass the legacy that team left and to write their own history for this program.
How far can this team go in the GMC & NJSIAA playoffs? What is the goal of the team this year?
Our goal as a team this season is to return to the GMC finals and hopefully with a different outcome from last year. The losses from last season in both the GMC and NJSIAA tournaments have been motivating factors for our team this offseason and something that they have been working towards since the end of last season. I believe they are a completely different team from last year; they are physically stronger, mentally tougher, more conditioned and more connected as a team. That can be a deadly combination. We just need to play our game and to our potential with intensity day in and day out.
Monroe has always been the big rival for most SP teams, especially field hockey. Will last year's loss to the Falcons in the county final serve as a motivating factor when you face them this year?
Definitely. That loss in the finals last season was a very tough one to swallow, but we used it as a learning experience and without a doubt have grown as a team from that experience. I think that we knew what we needed to work on and really focused on those aspects of our game over the offseason to improve them. Beyond Monroe though, we know that no matter who we are playing within our conference it is going to be a tough game. Teams always show up to play us. It's always been that way. So we take each game one day at a time and focus on the task at hand. We handle each team and each game with the same mentality and worry about our game plan and executing that well, rather than who is on the opposite side of the field from us.
Last question...What are the differences between coaching in your first year and second year? Are things a little less hectic this time around?
My second year has definitely been different then my first year. Last season, it was a transition not only for the girls, but for me as well going from the volunteer coach to the head coach. It's a big jump in authority and leadership, so that took a little bit of getting used to for everyone, including myself. Also last season, I just wanted to try and make the transition as seamless as possible and not change too many things that the girls were used to. I am a product of this program so in the back of my head I know the legacy and traditions, as well as the expectations that lie within a successful program like South Plainfield Field Hockey; so it was a little overwhelming to fill the shoes of former head coaches Cheryl Hughes and Fran Flannery. This season I feel like I am really starting to put my own mark on this program; I changed our summer workout program, our formation, how we approach different aspects of our game and the girls are really taking it in stride. They believe in my philosophy and vision and are working to make the changes that I'm asking of them. I don't know if coaching will ever be less hectic, but I'm certainly getting a better handle of things this year.