When Jayme Longacre agreed to take over Mifflinburg’s varsity hockey program, she stepped onto a bullet train that hasn’t stopped, or even slowed, for the last month.
For those who don’t know her unique circumstance, Longacre was to spend the season as varsity assistant to Kaylee Keener before the latter took a job out of the district. The move took place right before the season was to start, so Longacre was promoted and the Whirlwind of 2012 began.
“It’s pretty constant and keeps me busy but I truly love every second of it,” she said recently. “We’re all having a lot of fun together.”
In truth, it was a recipe for disaster. Keener, a Greenwood alumna, was hired to replace 12-year coach Ann Beckley, which would have been change enough to cause some pains. But the shuffle at the top was a real shock to the Wildcats’ system — never mind it occurred the first day of fall practice.
“At first when we found out that Keener was going to leave, we kind of had a feeling of (being orphaned), like nobody wanted us,” said senior keeper Dani Ard. “But we knew right away when Jayme agreed to coach that we had someone that did want us. We felt like she really wanted to do this and really cared about it.
“We were really excited.”
So began an interesting and (thus far rewarding) dynamic between players and coach.
Longacre, a 2007 Mifflinburg graduate who played for Beckley, wants nothing more than to produce the best possible season for the program’s deep and talented senior class.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, want nothing more than to give Longacre — who they embrace as one of their own — a successful first season.
“I felt like the entire senior class wanted to make her feel comfortable.” said Ard. “We want to make her proud.”
The girls are currently 8-3 with a four-game win streak. Their losses are (by two goals) to Red Lion and Line Mountain in non-league play, and to HAC-I archrival Selinsgrove.
Mifflinburg’s strength is clearly its senior class, led by Ard and forwards Nicole Brouse, Amy Orren and Maddie Zickgraf. They’re also getting strong play from classmates Tessa Woodring at back and Jada Handiboe and Sarah Shrawder in the midfield.
The junior class, though, is more than pulling its weight. Morgan Unger, an aggressive forward, stepped in last week when Orren missed time to injury. Katie Alexander and Cassie Lewis play a lot on the forward line, and McKenzie Noll is emerging as a standout on the defensive end. Kayla Kline, a tall, athletic freshman starter, projects as a force on attack for seasons to come.
“Us seniors have been working together ever since we were in seventh grade. We have girls that know how each other plays and it helps a lot on the field. We react well with everyone,” said Brouse. “I think the underclassmen look up to us, (and they) have really been stepping up, especially Kayla Kline and Katie Alexander. To know that it’s not just us seniors having to do it all is awesome.”
Together they navigated the uncertainty of the season’s beginning, Longacre employing much of Beckley’s philosophy with a few personal preferences. In a hard-fought 2-0 win at Shikellamy on Saturday, she shuffled girls on her forward line throughout the second half after being dominated by the Braves for much of the first. A week ago, the ’Cats rallied after Orren’s collision on a breakaway and scored the game’s only goal late.
After losses, like their disappointing 3-0 one at home to Selinsgrove, Longacre has spun a positive message.
“She never makes you feel disappointed or that you have disappointed her,” said Ard, “and that’s important.”
The season has progressed so well that the ’Cats have been able to look beyond their bubble and revisit the goals of challenging for the division and district championships and making the state playoffs.
Of course, the path to those achievements runs through Selinsgrove, which has never lost a HAC game and has claimed the last seven district crowns. Mifflinburg (6-1) trails the Seals (7-0-1) in the HAC-I standings; the teams play their regular-season finale on Oct. 16.
“We need to tell ourselves that it’s just another game and not base our whole season around (Selinsgrove) games,” Longacre said. “This year, they’ve been able to clear their heads and go into each game fresh.”
“Throughout the regular season you look forward to certain games, but we still take it one step at a time,” said Ard. “We focus on one game and it’s comfortable.”
A year ago, the ’Cats were the sixth seed in the district playoffs, but seemed a safe bet to make the final after upsetting No. 3 Midd-West in the quarters. Bloomsburg tripped them in the semis, though, and the ’Cats turned their attention to 2012 and life without Beckley. The transition, while not smooth, couldn’t have gone much better.
“I wouldn’t say, in general, that we’re a better team this year because each team has it’s own faults,” said Ard. “But I feel like this year there’s no single person that carries the team. We have multiple people that support, add to, or are important aspects of what we do. I’m very excited (about our potential).”
“Winning’s definitely fun and it helps, but win or lose — and whatever happens the rest of the season — I’m proud of them,” said Longacre. “They’ve come so far already, and I have a lot of faith in them that they can go far.”
Scott Dudinskie covers high school field hockey for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.