Old and New Owls Look For Winning Combination
KEENE, N.H. 8/23/11 – Before coming to Keene State College, Marisa Benson was a Crusader field hockey player from Groton-Dunstable (Mass.) High School, Kelly Burrell was a Ranger soccer player from Greeley (Me.) High, Sammy Dormio was a Raider volleyball player from Loudoun High in Leesburg, VA, and Pat Anthony was a Red Raider men’s soccer player from Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton, Mass. This week, they, along with 62 other aspiring freshmen and newcomers, began their respective fall camps in hopes of becoming Keene State Owls.
Fair or not, the week ahead will in most cases determine their athletic fate at Keene State. Some might be freshmen phenoms, jumping on the field or court and making immediate contributions to their respective KSC teams. Others will wait in the wings for their opportunity to shine in the spotlight, while some unfortunately will be told they don’t make the cut and see their varsity dreams dissolve into the cool, crisp air of a late-summer night.
Beginning his 41st season pacing the sidelines as coach of the Owls' men’s soccer team, Ron Butcher is a sage veteran who has seen his share of camp competition over the years. He says the first few days are all about getting acquainted. “The first few days, we just try to evaluate because the freshmen are wet behind the ears and they’re trying to learn the upperclassmen, and the upperclassmen are trying to learn about them,” he said. “Right now it’s a feeling-out process because every freshman wants to take a veteran's job and every veteran wants to keep his job.”
Set to start her 19th season, Keene State women’s soccer coach Denise Lyons is upfront with her team. The players are told where they stand before even taking the field. “In the very first meeting I tell them I don’t care what year you’re in, everyone is equal in my eyes. Every year is a tryout and I will play 11 freshmen if 11 freshmen show me they want to play,” she said. “Don’t hold back – I don’t want you backing out of tackles because you’re scared that someone's not going to be your friend. Play hard and show us what you can do.”
There’s a sense of urgency in all camps. Games begin in early September, giving coaches just a few precious weeks to round their squads into shape. “We need to be a team yesterday,” said women’s volleyball coach Bob Weiner with a nervous smile. “We have players playing next to people they haven’t played with before. It has to be seamless and right now we have a lot of work to do to make that happen.”
Each coach must factor in a variety of circumstances when evaluating their first-year players. KSC field hockey coach Amy Watson has players getting accustomed to a turf field, while Peter Thomas, the Owls’ longtime cross country coach, has numerous converted track runners hitting the trails for the first time.
Some freshmen arrive with injuries; others need time to get up to speed, and a few are dealing with the emotional trauma of being away from home for the first time. “They’re going to be a little nervous and I can understand that,” said Lyons. “I tell them they are going to have good days and bad days, you’re going to miss home and your family. Right now we’re you’re family away from home.”
To help offset the anxiety of separation, many programs set up a buddy system, pairing returning players with recruits. “We all have little sisters,” said Megan Dempsey, a senior goalie from Weymouth, Mass. “We all sit together at lunch and do activities after practice. It’s a good way to get everyone together.”
While the minds of returnees might wander, recalling recent warm days on the beach or vacations at exotic locals, the freshmen are attentive and alert, gladly accepting instruction and advice. The desire to impress is strong. Coaches must reel in the overly ambitious who think they are playing for the Little East championship on the first day of practice. “I tell my runners to train smart,” said Thomas. “It’s a gradual process. You can’t make every day a race day.”
Coaches rely heavily on their veterans and returning players to help incorporate first-years onto their team – the quicker the transition, the better. “I was a nervous wreck when I came in, in so I can only imagine what they’re going through,” said Dempsey. “All the returnees are doing a really good job of encouraging and motivating everyone, so we can come together as a team.”
“I tell the freshman not to worry about making a mistake,” said Cam Blair, a senior striker on the Owl men’s soccer team. “The coaches will get on you a little bit, but you’re going to build confidence with every touch.”
“This year we want to win, so we’re making sure everyone is together,” said Bridget O’Bryant, a senior hitter on the KSC women’s volleyball team. “We want everyone to feel wanted here.”
Serving as a senior captain of a women’s cross country team that currently consists of 35 runners, including 20 freshmen, Paige Mills says she is enjoying the challenge role that mixes competition with congeniality. “We’ve had attrition issues over the years, so I’m not trying to send them through any type of boot camp,” said the All-American from Keene. “I want them to work hard, but I also want them to be happy and have a positive attitude. So far we’re clicking well. There’s real good energy and vibes this year.”
Stars and leaders on their high school teams just a year ago, the freshmen now find themselves as outsiders, trying to adapt to a new coach, new teammates, and a new role. They greatly appreciate the effort of team leaders who go out of their way to make them feel at home. “I was definitely nervous coming in, but everyone has been really nice,” said Savage, a former All-State girls soccer player from Green Mountain (Vt.) Union High School. “Everyone has been very supportive.”
“I was a little shaken, but when I got here, I felt the same family bond that I felt when I visited last September, so I’m perfectly happy," said Dormio. “I feel like I already know these girls. I can’t wait to get on the court and play my heart out.”
Despite an impressive scholastic soccer career at Greeley High in Cumberland, Maine, Kelly Burrell was taking no chances preparing for camp, spending the summer working out and playing in a women’s league. In the end, fall camp is all about competition. Jobs are at a premium and only the strongest will survive. While Burrell’s chances to make the Keene State women’s soccer team are strong, her game plan for going into camp is simple: "I’m just going to go out there and try my hardest,” she said.