Usually, an infant has to learn to crawl before it can walk. But in the case of the Fitch High School field hockey team, in its first season as a varsity sport at the school, this baby came out running.
The Falcons (5-4-1 to date) are in line for a state playoff spot, needing just one win in the last five regular season games to qualify for the Class M state tournament.
And a senior, Joanie Haling, is emerging as one of the area’s top scorers, second among all eastern Connecticut players with 13 goals. Haling, who along with classmates Elizabeth Nolan and Anna Herman, were ringleaders in the drive to varsity status, is southeastern Connecticut Patches’ Athlete of the Week.
It was 2009 when the small group of Fitch students formed a field hockey club with the hope of one day becoming a varsity team. After two successful JV seasons and a series of impressive presentations to the Groton Board of Education, coach Diane Kolnaski figured the day was imminent that Fitch would make the jump.
“I was optimistic but I was concerned that it would be approved for 2012, which would have been fine,” Kolnaski said. “But if that were the case, for the parents and this year’s seniors who helped push to make Fitch field hockey a varsity sport, their opportunity would never happen for them.”
Last school year, Kolnaski was pleasantly surprised that the school board approved varsity status for the fall of 2011.
"It's a team game and we're thrilled with our season so far,” Kolnaski said. “But seeing Joanie have the opportunity to play varsity one time and stand out the way she has, it's very satisfying."
In a sport were scoring is limited because of complicated rules and the difficulty of stickhandling, Haling has been nothing short of sensational in her position of first home attack. Also a varsity lacrosse midfielder with an offensive-mentality, Haling has strong stick skills and a knack for shooting into open spaces.
"I've practiced quite a bit placing my stick under the ball to lift shots," Haling said. "In lacrosse, I'm more of a playmaker. I've always had a sense of scoring in field hockey."
Haling uses positioning, instincts and stickwork to her advantage, scoring many of her goals off of penalty corners, where, after an opponent infraction, a Fitch teammate passes the ball to Haling inside the 16-yard scoring circle.
"I visualize where the pass is going and read the defense to see where I'll make my move or shot," Haling said.
She scores in bunches - three goals in Fitch's first varsity win over NFA and four in a 6-2 win over Windham. She scores under pressure, tallying two game-winning goals in overtime, including one with a second left in a 2-1 triumph over NFA.
"The tighter the game, the more of an adrenaline rush Joanie gets," Kolnaski said. "She's such a resilient player. Nothing stops her."
Her other OT winner came in a 2-1 win over The Williams School, where she played field hockey as an eighth grader. Haling, who lives in Mystic, transferred to Fitch and enrolled in the International Baccalaurette Diploma Program. The two-year program is considered more academically intense than a mainstream high school course load and open to a select group of students bound for highly-competitive colleges.
Students are assessed by Fitch teachers and outside IB instructors and are graded heavily in timed, written exams. Haling is currently taking three IB courses during the fall. No opportunities for Senioritis here.
“It’s almost like attending private school in a public school,” Haling said. “The IB program is very challenging."
One might excuse Haling if she placed 100 percent of her focus on academics.
"Her academic responsibilities require total commitment," Kolnaski said. "But Joanie balances both school and sports and goes above and beyond the dedication level needed to succeed in both."
In many ways, during this Fitch Cinderella story, Kolnaski is not stunned at all by Haling's immediate impact.
"In all honesty, I did expect big things from Joanie," the coach said. "In our early stages as a club team, she was a leader for the many girls who were picking up a stick for the first time. She always had ability to play varsity and I could see early on she was great on the attack."
Having ability to score is one thing. Doing it is another.
"I've been around sports like soccer and lacrosse where you have an athlete with potential to score but it doesn't pan out for whatever reason: bad luck, struggling team, etc.," Kolnaski said. "Her success is a tribute to the team, the defense getting the ball to the midfield and midfield to attack, and to her. She's had a great season in her one chance at varsity."