Smart sisterhood: All 11 Ridgefield field hockey seniors make NHS

To Madelaine Hutchings, it came as no surprise that her team excelled on penalty corners this fall.

“Whenever we watched film, I noticed that the girls were able to see angles and use them as part of the strategy,” said Hutchings, the second-year head coach of the Ridgefield High field hockey team. “They had no problem talking about geometry, and how it related to the sport.”

Chances are the seniors on Ridgefield’s roster would also have been comfortable discussing the role of trigonometry, calculus and physics; delving into the etymological origin of field hockey terms; or visualizing the field hockey field — with its marks, vertical lines, and distinctive semi-circles — as the grid for a Mondrian painting.

When all 11 of your team’s senior players are members of the National Honor Society, the intellectual and the physical are scarcely separated.

“We may not have been the best team in the state,” said Hutchings, “but we might have been the smartest.”

To be eligible for the Ridgefield High School Chapter of the National Honor Society, students must have a weighted grade point average of 3.7 or higher through the first semester of their junior year. Those who are eligible and apply are then considered based on community service, leadership, character and citizenship.

“All students who were accepted into the National Honor Society received a letter of congratulations during the summer before senior year,” said Lexi Pass, one of the team’s 12th graders. “After the induction ceremony (in September), it was actually my mom who pointed it out to me (and my coach and [RHS Athletic Director] Dane Street) that all 11 playing seniors were now members of NHS.”

At a practice soon after the ceremony, Hutchings asked her senior players to step forward. Rather than diagramming a play, she informed the rest of the team about the National Honor Society inductions.

“She told our underclassmen that they should be proud of what this says about our program,” said senior Julia McSpedon. “And that they should strive to keep the same spirit alive within the program in the seasons after we graduate.”

Hutchings said the collective brainpower was both a plus and a challenge for her and the other coaches.

“Usually when a coach says this is what the team is going to do, the players just follow along. But this group wanted to know why we were doing something,” said Hutchings, whose team qualified for the conference and state tournaments and finished with a 10-7-1-1 record. “I’ve never been part of a team that focused so much on the verbiage of things.”

“We all know each other very well," said senior Katie Pieterse, the team’s captain. "In addition to playing together since middle school, most of us have been in classes together (or taken the same subjects) throughout high school.

“Because of that, we know what each of us are going through during games or in the classroom, and that helped us be more supportive of each other," continued Pieterse. "For example, I was able to anticipate what the defense was going to do in certain situations and where the forwards were going to be when we were on the attack and I am sure others felt the same way.”

“Coach Hutchings stressed mental toughness throughout the season, and one of the ways we practiced it was by doing a series of sprints and then answering riddles,” said Pass. “It taught us to think clearly even when we're tired, which I found really helpful.

“I also saw this intellectual quality during games, too — vital parts of the game are making smart passes, knowing when to make the passes, and probably most importantly where a player is supposed to go when they don't have the ball,” continued Pass. “The deeper understanding a player has of the game makes for a stronger team dynamic.”

McSpedon agreed, referencing a specific passing sequence in a game against Staples as an example.

“I controlled the ball into the center of the field and then passed it back out to the sideline behind the defender that was marking me and to the space where Katie (Pieterse) had moved,” she said. “Seamless transitions and an understanding of our relative positions on the field were very strongly aided by the intellectual quality of our team.

“Field hockey is not just about the next play, it’s about the play after that and the play after that,” added McSpedon. “One strength of our team was the mental focus to see the future options of every play and execute them.”

Pass said it has been a challenge for her and the other seniors to balance sports with a demanding course load full of honors and AP classes.

“Long bus rides to games are definitely not ideal for doing work, and practices take out a huge chunk of the day,” she said. “There have been many, many late nights of studying and finishing homework during the fall season. That being said, I would not give up sports for an extra few hours of studying. I've actually found that sports have (mostly) helped with my academic success. I'm much better at managing my time and have learned to deal with both stress from academics and sports alike.”

Although they have played their final games at Ridgefield High, the seniors are hopeful that their example has resonated with teammates who return next season.

“I think that having our senior class be so strong of a presence on the field and in the classroom holds the younger players to a higher academic and athletic standard,” said McSpedon. “When it comes down to it, we are student-athletes and academics should come first. This senior class, however, is a testament to the fact that the two are not mutually exclusive.”

“When people are committed to working hard on the field and in the classroom it makes everything easier,” added Pieterse, an All-FCIAC and All-State selection who will play at Yale. “Because we have all known each other and played together for so long we collectively have great respect and fondness for each other. Individual goals were not important to us.

“One of my fondest memories was how excited we all were when Caroline Bunt scored her first goal of the season – it was as if we had all scored. That play captured what it was like to play with this group of seniors.”