It’s kind of funny to ask Lawrence High field hockey coach Megan Errico about prized freshman Talia Schenck, because it’s not the response you would expect from one usually so well-spoken.
“She is…she’s just…,” Errico then lets out a frustrated sigh. “Oh, I don’t even know where to start.”
The veteran coach wouldn’t mind being at such a loss for words more often, as players like Schenck are as rare as a field hockey game with no whistles.
The Cardinals finished the season 10-9. Fourteen games into the season, her 27 goals already shattered the school season record of 22, and she eventually broke the school career record of 35. Both were set in the early 2000s.
What’s even more impressive is that Schenck is not surprising herself, as her experience includes U.S. Futures and club field hockey, along with numerous tournaments, camps and clinics. Entering high school, Schenck knew she was ready.
“I receive great coaching, and play against great competition,” she said. “That’s helped prepare me for high school play. I have confidence in my ability and believed that I could break the single season record, although I didn’t see it happening so early in the season.
“I also believe that I can break the career record. I’m happy and proud with how the season is going, but I know there have been some missed opportunities. There is always room for improvement and I plan to continue working hard and improve each year.”
Schenck is not just providing lip service when she talks of wanting to improve. While talent is obviously a huge part of her success; so is a stubbornness to never be satisfied. Errico calls the 9th-grader “her own worst critic.”
“I think that’s what pushes her to do so well, because she gets on herself,” the coach said. “She has a full regulation cage in her backyard, so she’s never not practicing, and she loves it. I want her to always love it and not get so frustrated with herself; or not think her performance wasn’t good enough. I want her to enjoy the moments of the game and enjoy winning even if it wasn’t how she wanted to win.”
Schenck has been loving the game since third grade, when her brother’s girlfriend suggested it to her. Gina Gutierrez, who now plays for Gwynedd Mercy University, played for Lawrence at the time. She told young Schenck how much she loved the game and the 8-year-old absorbed the message.
“Talia picked up a stick in elementary school and basically hasn’t put that stick down,” Errico said.
She started in the Lawrence Recreation program, which didn’t exactly invoke thoughts of playing in college. Or high school, for that matter.
“The program ran in the winter and we played in a school gym,” she said. “There were only about six girls, and we had to put socks on our sticks so we didn’t damage the floor. I enjoyed it at the time, but didn’t see myself taking it anywhere.”
Nonetheless, she began attending clinics at Princeton Day School the next year. At the suggestion of director Cris Maloney, Schenck moved on to the Princeton Field Hockey Club in sixth grade and has been there ever since. The PFHC is run by the Princeton University coaches, who have developed one of the nation’s top programs. The USA Futures program is considered one of the best around, and Schneck also did private lessons last summer with club coaches Carla Tagliente and Mike Pallister.
‘When I look back at my achievements, whether it’s a little moment in a practice or game or a big accomplishment, they help me see that my hard work is paying off.’
Unbelievably, there was a time the sport did not agree with her. That lasted for what seemed about 10 seconds.
“It was intimidating and I didn’t like it at first,” Schenck said. “I stuck with it and began to make friends. I saw myself improving and began to enjoy it more. I’ve met some of my closest friends through the club. Now I can’t get enough of it.”
Playing for Lawrence Middle School, Schenck was so dominant, it almost became counter-productive in some ways.
“She was obviously above everyone else,” Errico said. “So I think it was difficult for her. That’s hard for a girl to be in that situation.”
It wasn’t hard for Errico to watch.
“I heard about her in seventh grade from the middle school coach, saying ‘She’s so good, she’s so good,’ and I was like ‘Alright, yeah, yeah, yeah,’” the coach said with a laugh. “And then I watched her play last year, and I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’”
Schenck entered a program that was coming off one of its most successful campaigns in years as the Cardinals went 10-10-1. They took a big graduation hit, which actually may have helped the freshman.
There was concern that it might be a return to middle school, where she dominated above all others. And it is often difficult for an incoming freshman to star right away on a team full of seniors, as jealousies can sometimes occur.
But without a senior on the Lawrence squad this year, that hasn’t been the case.
“I think she was a little nervous about that, but it’s been a very successful situation,” Errico said. “No one is jealous of her, and if she gets frustrated with somebody, she gets frustrated with herself. She’s not one to get frustrated with somebody who’s not at her level.”
Schenck admitted her most pleasant surprise was how neatly she transitioned on to the varsity.
“I’ve made a lot of friends, and they’re all very supportive and have made this easy,” she said. “I was able to find my role quickly. The team has been connecting well on and off the field and continues to improve. Being a young team, we are working hard to get better every day. We have the chance to finish strong and end the season with a winning record. Looking ahead, most of the team should be back next year and it’s exciting to think about the direction we’re going.”
Schenck served notice as to what direction she could help the Cards go in her first high school game, when she scored all five goals in a 5-1, opening-day victory over West Windsor-Plainsboro North. She scored in 13 of Lawrence’s first 14 games, racking up six multi-goal games. She also had five assists during that time, as aggressive double teaming forces her to give the ball up at times.
“The same thing happened when I was in middle school,” Schenck said. “I have confidence in my ability, so I don’t let it bother me. If a team over-commits, that helps open things up for my teammates.”
So often, however, Schenck has the ability to open things up for herself. Errico praised her center-forward (she plays midfield and forward in club) for her “ridiculously hard shot” and a combination of tremendous speed with the ability to not lose the ball.
“She’s so smart with the game and her stick skills are absolutely incredible,” Errico said. “She can sprint down the field and maintain the possession pretty much the entire game if you let her.”
Just how does one do such things? Especially when the slightest mis-hit on the wrong side of the stick means a stoppage.
“I don’t think that there’s a trick, you just have to practice your stickwork as much as possible,” she said. “I try to practice my pulls every day. It’s a basic skill, but very important.”
It’s one she learned to enhance from Charlotte Craddock, her former instructor who played for the University of North Carolina and England’s Olympic team.
“I was lucky enough to do private lessons with her,” Schenck said. “She suggested that I use a tennis ball when practicing stick skills. Because the tennis ball is bouncy, it helps you develop softer hands. The practice and repetition helps to develop overall speed.”
She is now trying to help develop some of her teammates who have just recently gotten involved with field hockey.
“Talia is working with girls who are good but have only been playing a few years; we have a really young team,” Errico said. “I think Talia is doing a good job of trying to raise our girls to her level. They see it and they want to get there.”
Schenck’s scoring exploits and ability to control the ball on her stick remind Errico of Robbinsville’s outstanding Shea Walsh. The difference between the two is, Walsh’s main sport is softball, while Schenck is all field hockey.
“I used to play rec soccer and softball,” she said. “It was fun, but I never had a passion for either. When it comes to my passion for field hockey, I can’t single out just one specific thing that makes me love it. It’s a combination of everything. The game, my coaches, my teammates, the competition. I also love seeing myself improve and grow as a player. When I look back at my achievements, whether it’s a little moment in a practice or game or a big accomplishment, they help me see that my hard work is paying off.”
They also help render Errico speechless, in a good way.