Jaycee Lowe, left, Katie McGinn and goalie Kendall Bartkowski wait for the ball during a 4-0 loss at Allentown on Sept. 13. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

The backbone of the Ewing High School girls field hockey team runs down the middle from Lauren Ettenger at sweeper to Jaycee Lowe at center forward.

The Blue Devils have their most experienced, poised and skilled players in that line that also includes Katie McGinn at center mid and Deanna Hedrick at center back, but those players didn’t always feel so strong.

“I’ve definitely improved a lot,” says Ettenger, a senior who has started three and a half years. “I was pretty terrible my freshman year. We have a very small program so the reason that there is rapid improvement is because the freshmen get thrown into it and they’re forced to figure it out. That’s what I think happened to me.”

Lowe says the jump from middle school, which she started playing as a sixth grader, to high school was enormous.

“As a freshman, you’re a little nervous,” says Lowe, a junior in her third year starting. “I didn’t know if I was going to come in and play right away. I played right away and I think I was center. The easier part was we had a goalie who’s been playing goalie for four years and the other offenders knew what they were doing. Middle school and high school field hockey is two different games. The biggest adjustment would have to be how much running. We are running mile or a mile-and-a-half every day. At Fisher, I was just running around the field.”

Ty Melvin on the field during the EHS field hockey team’s 4-0 defeat at Allentown on Sept. 13, 2017. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Ewing head coach Leslie Conant says she is proud of the way that her players develop into leaders by the time they are upperclassmen. Now in her 10th season at the helm, she has seen improvements in her returning players every year.

“It’s really awesome to have them for four years and see the progression,” Conant says. “When they leave, it makes you smile. You can say, ‘Look what you accomplished and what you did.’”

Ettenger is firm in her role as sweeper, the final line of defense in front of goalie Kendall Bartkowski. It’s the second season in a row that she has played sweeper.

“It definitely helped me a lot last year to get that experience in,” Ettenger says. “This year, I feel a lot more confident being able to direct the defense because I’m farther back so I can see things they don’t. I’m more vocal trying to direct them, especially the freshmen who are back there and don’t necessarily know where to go.”

The defense has some returning veterans like Hedrick and left back Serina Montero. Amelie Francois is a junior at right back who is stepping into a regular starting role.

“I think our defense is fairly strong,” Ettenger says. “We have returning players and we have Serina, Deanna and Amelie, but she got injured and is out a couple weeks. Allentown, that was our first game playing without Amelie. Overall, though, I think we’re a good defensive team.”

Having Ettenger back for one last year gives the team a big lift. She’s developed her game year after year.

“It shows where hard work and dedication gets you,” Conant says. “It blows your mind to see that as a coach.”

Jada Muir reaches for possession of the ball.

Ettenger has always been defensive minded. She plays defense in lacrosse for Ewing as well, and has helped the field hockey defense from her first day. She doesn’t see that changing this year, though she could come forward on penalty corners to contribute at the offensive end.

“So far this season, I’m still mostly in the back,” Ettenger says. “We’re working on a corner when I’d be involved and that’s probably the most attack I’ll play.”

It’s Lowe who worries full-time about the attack. Her challenge is similar up front with working with a new group. She is the leading returning goal scorer for Ewing, but the Blue Devils graduated their other top threat, Jade Hall. Each of them had nine goals last year.

“It’s been a big difference compared to sophomore year,” Lowe says. “I had Jade Hall. It was me and her. Now I have younger girls around me.”

Lowe has been a huge influence on them early. A hat trick in an 8-1 win over Nottingham that improved Ewing to 2-2 gave Lowe five goals already in four games this year. She might have had more, but she set an unselfish example.

Lara Martin holds back an Allentown player. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

“She came into the season in the best shape I’ve seen,” Conant says. “She’s all about the team. She’s spunky. When things aren’t going good, she’s the cheerleader. She had a couple breakaways (against Nottingham) and could have scored and sees the freshmen on the right and left and passes it off. And when things get rough, she doesn’t get down. It was huge in the Allentown game. We didn’t get a huge amount of plays to goal, but when we did, she started it. She has a great attitude and it’s a pleasure to have her on the field.”

Lowe feels she has to keep her level high at all times. An accomplished basketball player as well, she is learning to trust her new field hockey forward line and helping them adjust to her style of play.

“There’s a lot of responsibility,” Lowe says. “I feel like it’s up to me to get everyone started. If something doesn’t happen, if offense doesn’t get started, it’s up to me. It’s good pressure, not bad pressure. I like being a leader and someone everyone can look up to.”

Keeping the proper spacing is a big point of emphasis for the offense. And as the Blue Devils improve their dribbling skills, they will be able to keep their eyes up to make better passes, and that will make them a more dangerous offensive team.

“I do believe we can score against any team in the CVC,” Lowe says. “Some games, I believe we can score more.”

The Blue Devils put up a season-high eight goals against Nottingham, but they don’t want to fall into a trap thinking that every game will be like that win. The emphasis remains on playing up to their potential every game.

Ewing goalie Kendall Bartkowski and sweeper Lauren Ettenger try to a stop a goal during a field hockey game at Allentown on Sept. 13, 2017. Allentown won the game 4-0. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

“Communication is going to be really huge for us,” Ettenger says. “And on top of that, remembering the basics. Sometimes I think when we play games like we had when we played Nottingham and when we play teams not at our skill level, we tend to play down to match them. We obviously did well, and it was a good win, but we could have played a lot cleaner.”

Only Allentown has held Ewing off the scoreboard, and the Blue Devils earned one shutout of their own, 2-0, over West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North for their first win of the year. The Blue Devils are gaining confidence, finding where to fit in their new contributors and developing their roles.

“Everything has been coming along,” Lowe says. “They get better day by day. Every practice, somebody has done something better than what they were doing before.”

Says Ettenger: “I think we’re going to improve a lot from last year. This group of freshmen has been working really hard. With the returning players we have and the improvement they’ve had—I think they’re better than a lot of freshmen groups we’ve had in the past, including mine.”

Improvement is a constant focus for Ewing. They came on strong last year and upset Hopewell Valley in the first round of the Mercer County Tournament. Progress has been steady again thanks to a strong backbone of leadership.

“Improvement-wise, I feel our skill has improved from where we started to where we are now,” Conant says. “Little things we do in practice, you see them start to spill over into the games. As a coach, that’s promising. You’re applying it to the games.”