It wasn’t long ago — six or seven years — that a Chesapeake-Severna Park field hockey rivalry was an impossibility, a pipe dream. For decades, the Falcons were a perennial dominant force that plowed through the county year after year on their way to state titles almost annually, and the Cougars labored in the middle of the pack or finished low on the county totem pole.
But here we are in 2019, and the current Cougar varsity girls scarcely remember a time when Chesapeake wasn’t one of the top programs in the state. After all, Joan Johnson took over the program in 2013, and Chesapeake has been to four straight 3A state tournaments since 2015, with two state championships in the bank. Battling annually for county supremacy with the Falcons, still every bit the state powerhouse they’ve always been, is Chesapeake’s not-so-new normal.
Against this backdrop, the Cougars’ 2-0 road loss to the Falcons on October 1 felt less like a crushing blow or heartbreaking missed opportunity than a hiccup along the way of yet another successful season.
“Severna Park is always a challenge,” said Chesapeake co-captain and senior midfielder Shelby Bennoit. “We’ve always had this rivalry. It’s always back and forth every year. We always see them in the county championship or whatever it might be. So, congratulations to them, they played a great game, and good luck to them the rest of the season.”
Classy words from a program more concerned with preparing for a state-title run than with proving their worth against the fellow elite within the county. Chesapeake knows what it has because they’ve worked the formula before: play solid defense, ride tremendous goalie play, maintain peak fitness, finish scoring chances and play a ruthless schedule of juggernaut opponents in preparation for November.
At 7-3 through early October, so far, so good. The highlight of the season for the Cougars came on September 13 when the Cougars defeated South River — back-to-back-to-back reigning 4A state champions — in an overtime shootout, 2-2 (3-2). Madison Hoyer and Stephenie Brown scored regulation goals for Chesapeake against the Seahawks, both assisted by senior defender and co-captain Caitlyn Johnson. After scoreless overtimes, the game went to a shootout, where Caitlyn Johnson, Hoyer and Georgia Spangler sank their takes, and goalkeeper Eve Vickery made multiple saves to lift Chesapeake to the win. Vickery finished with 12 saves in the win, while Johnson, Natalie Forman, Abby McFarland, Avery Sesney and Abby Dunn led the team’s win with defense.
Johnson said her shootout goal and the team win is a lifelong memory against the preeminent juggernaut opponent, who, like all of Chesapeake’s opponents, has a far deeper roster theoretically better suited to endure the rigors of overtime games.
“We’re in shape, but we just wanted to finish the South River game and get it over with,” said Johnson. “When we went to shootouts, I did the air dribble, popped it over the goalie, and it went straight in. I’ll remember that forever. It was like a state game.”
Chesapeake scored a 3-2 win over Old Mill on October 11, getting two goals from Spangler, including the winner in overtime. Johnson scored the other goal for the Cougars, and Vickery made 10 saves.
The signature win over South River and the challenging slate of games give Chesapeake a level of preparation unlikely to be rivaled once they enter the revamped playoff landscape, in which the Cougars will not only drop into the 2A playoff bracket this year but will also navigate the state-wide decision to re-seed brackets after section finals. They will avoid 3A mainstays Mount Hebron and C. Milton Wright in this year’s playoffs but will nonetheless have to contend with Kent Island in their own playoff section as well as traditional 2A powers Hereford and Glenelg.
Still, coach Johnson believes the Cougars are rounding into form.
“The competition is great. We’re looking forward to it, and these games are getting us ready for it,” she said. “My girls are becoming more and more of a cohesive unit of knowing when to talk and what to say and knowing where to be on the field, which I’m really happy about.”
With only 20 girls on the team and only five seniors — Johnson, Bennoit, Jenna Latham, Mariana Donahue and Madison Billing — the Cougars are restocked after losing 12 seniors from last year’s team, including scoring and assisting wunderkind Rachel Fleig. Chesapeake knows they will have strong defense, and when the goals start coming, the Cougars will be as tough as anyone in the state.
“Our goalie [Eve Vickery] — amazing,” said Caitlyn Johnson. “She’s the best goalie I’ve ever had in my life. Our defense is amazing, our middies are amazing, everything’s amazing. We just need to work on getting it into goal.”
Bennoit concurred and said how the team handles scoring chances will determine its ultimate level of success.
“The seniors we lost last year were the majority of our starting lineup from last year, so we’ve had to do a lot of rebuilding this year,” Bennoit said. “But Eve’s always got our back, the defense has our back, and we just need to work on finishing right now.”