Hopewell Valley Central High School sophomore Bella DiNardo is showing major improvement on the field hockey field. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

When it comes to athletics, Bella DiNardo is not unlike the girl who flirted with all the boys until Prince Charming came along and stole her heart.

“When I was younger I played soccer, basketball, and I even did cross country for a year,” the Hopewell Valley Central High School sophomore said. “Once I started playing field hockey my passion for that sport grew bigger than any other. Two years ago when I was heading into my freshman year I decided that I only wanted to play field hockey.”

Just what was it that grabbed her?

“I love field hockey because of the challenge to do better every day; whether it’s in training or a game,” DiNardo said. “I also love the people who I have met along the journey. I have met many new people who I have become close friends with. My teammates are definitely a main factor that have contributed in my passion for the game.”

It was those teammates who helped DiNardo through a freshman season in which, for the first time, field hockey wasn’t flowing free and easy. She was a swing player for the JV and varsity, scoring one goal on the big club while getting limited time.

“A year ago my confidence was struggling in my play and my teammates and coaches have helped me immensely with that,” she said.

Some extra effort on Bella’s part also played a part, as she noted, “From last season to this season I did not go a week without training. This has helped me improve my skills and aggressiveness near the cage.”

The results have been easily noticeable. As of Oct. 14, DiNardo was tied with Kelsey Fithen for the team lead in goals with 11; and she was second on the team in overall scoring with 11 goals and five assists.

“Bella has really stepped up, she’s done so much work outside of the season,” coach Pam Edwards said. “She has just grown leaps and bounds from last year. Coming in last year I knew she was a hard worker, a great kid. She really worked on her fundamentals, she worked on her speed. Her shot has gotten really strong.”

DiNardo’s emergence has helped open things up for Fithen (11 goals, 10 assists), who emerged as a dangerous offensive threat last season; and other quality scorers such as Chloe McGregor (8 goals, 4 assists) and Kileigh Pfluger (5 goals, 5 assists).

DiNardo gives the seniors credit for helping her come along.

“The team has a lot of talent,” she said. “Kileigh Pfluger, Kelsey Fithen and also Gabbi Gomez have consistently contributed every year, including inspiring me through their passion for field hockey. They will certainly be missed next year and it’s been great to have the opportunity to compete with them.”

DiNardo began field hockey at age 7, playing in a Saturday morning clinic run by the renowned Cris Maloney. That ignited a passion that took her to the Princeton Field Hockey Club, run by the Princeton University coaches.

“They have one of the top programs in the country and I’m fortunate to have such wonderful coaching,” DiNardo said. “Of course when you first start playing, the game is a very slow speed, but as I began to improve the game became very fast paced. I would have never imagined me playing at the speed during a game that I am today.”

Much of that has to do with a year-round dedication to the sport.

“Playing on both my school and club team continues to test me and make me a better player,” she said. “Last year was the first year where I did not stop training after the school season.”

Rather than take a break, DiNardo went to camps, tournaments, club practices and other field hockey events.

“She’s highly determined, she sets goals for herself that she tries to achieve,” Edwards said. “We had high expectations for her and it’s nice to see her stepping up and giving 100 percent at games and practices too.”

DiNardo feels with the abundance of talent on the Bulldogs, who were 11-4-1 at mid-October, it makes things easier for more girls to score, since there are so many weapons to worry about.

“We have 10 players who have scored goals. That makes it pretty difficult for opposing teams because they may focus on me, Kelsey and Kileigh, but that leaves seven others who are capable of scoring. Additionally, our defense has been awesome and this has allowed us to be aggressive on offense.

“Every defensive player has been a big part of getting the ball downfield to set up the scoring opportunities for the mids and forwards. Not to mention, we have back defenders, like Meggy Wiley, who have scored too. The ability for any player on our team to score opens it up for everyone and also takes the pressure off of any one player.”

When it comes to field hockey, however, the only pressure DiNardo feels is waiting for the game to start, because she just can’t wait.

“Right now, for me, it’s all about field hockey and studying,” she said. “I’d like to play field hockey in college and this is a big year, both this season and the off-season, to do my best as a student-athlete and hopefully open up some college opportunities.”

Because a love like this is hard to find.