Sanjana Sanjana moved from defense to try goalkeeper in the preseason, testing a position change to help add depth to the High School North field hockey program.
But barely one month into the experiment, the sophomore jumped from junior varsity to varsity due to an injury to the Knights’ only experienced goalie, Ananya Dondapati.
“I knew the other goalie has been playing for four years, and she has a better understanding of the position and watching out for angles and everything,” Sanhana said. “I was getting inspired by her every day to work hard for the varsity position, but I never thought that this year, not even halfway into this year, would be my first varsity game.”
Sanjana actually cried when she heard that Dondapati would be out with a concussion. It meant trial by fire for Sanjana, whose first varsity start came in a 6-3 loss to area power Princeton High in mid-September.
Since then she has grown more accustomed to varsity play and has responded well, particularly when she made 14 saves in a 3-0 loss to Stuart Country Day in the Mercer County Tournament’s first round.
“The first game was not really good for me,” Sanjana said. “It was against Princeton and they’re one of the stronger teams. Resetting (after being scored on) was much harder so I tried to focus on that.
“The most recent game against Stuart, I did surprise myself. I was really, really shocked when I looked at the book. They said I had a lot of saves on defense. Looking at where I began to where I am now, that definitely surprises me.”
Sanjana has answered some big questions about her own make-up. She’s discovered she can respond well to challenges and she’s helped the Knights go 8-8 heading into the state tournament.
“She found herself being very successful,” said Knights head coach Rebecca Saba. “She had not had varsity time, but as soon as Ananya had that concussion, she has saved the scores from being very different as a result of her aerial saves, of her diving saves. She’s done an outstanding job for us.”
WW-P North evened its record at 7-7 with a solid team effort in a 2-1 overtime win over Pennington in their MCT consolation game. Jessica Heiser notched the game-winning goal after Sanjana and Dondapati split the game in goal in Dondapati’s return from injury.
“I feel like we’re in a really good place,” Sanjana said. “We’ve had a pretty good season. Some games, of course, we went back home with a loss but we know we played our hearts out.”
Sixth-seeded North won, 4-0, against No. 11 seed Nottingham on Oct. 22 in the first round of the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 state tournament.
They were scheduled to travel to third-seeded Colts Neck on Oct. 26, after The News went to press. The Knights went in looking to play with more grit than they have in some games.
“On any given day, the girls sometimes do and sometimes don’t,” Saba said. “There’s a few players who are consistent for us, but the others still kind of waver. I think the key for us is going to be being more consistent in our fight for the ball and our determination to win balls, to possess balls, that’s going to be key.”
The Knights won five of their final eight in the second half of the season, and it was Stuart that gave them a pair of losses within an eight-day span, the second of those in the MCT.
“We started to work on one of the drills we had worked on the day before to get around Stuart because they played a clustered game and we had a hard time getting through that,” Saba said. “We worked on swinging the ball and it helped us be pretty successful the second time we played them. It was still a loss, but we played a much better game.”
The increased success this season has come from years of emphasizing and working at the basics of the game. The Knights were tested early in the season and then started to see the rewards of their training.
“We started off the season being hit really hard with some of the powerhouses of our conference,” Saba said. “And we got knocked down pretty hard. The second portion of our game schedule became a little lighter. Although the skill set might have been there in the beginning, we got more rattled by the power in the other teams we faced and it took a while to trust that what we were doing in practices and the fundamentals of the game were what we really needed to stick to and trust in.”
Everything about playing goalie was new to Sanjana when she started. With Dondapati the only official goalie in the program at the start of the preseason, the Knights made a plea to their field players to make a switch.
Sanjana was among five to try it. Saba brought in former North head coach Paula Tessein as well as another former goalie, Anne Stein, who teaches in the school district, and last year’s starting goalie who graduated, Avital Shnaider, to work with the goalies.
“Coach Stein was a goalie and she played in college as well and Coach Tessein also played goalie,” Sanjana said. “Having those two helped so much, not only in understanding the position, but also having them made us all seem like we could do it.”
Shnaider’s help was also invaluable. ‘She came to so many of our games and so many practices just to help the goalies,” Sanjana said. “She had her classes going on—she’s a freshman in college this year—but even with that, she still made time for us.”
The Knights have adjusted to numerous changes. They have an experienced core, but also a strong sophomore class.
“They have a strong desire to continue to grow and get better and challenge those above them,” Saba said. “That has in a friendly way spurred on the upperclassmen to recognize that they do have to continue to work hard for those positions.”
Sanjana was thrust into a bigger role than she ever imagined this year. The result will be that next year North will have a pair of then-juniors who will have started at the varsity level.
This year’s experience was hard at times on Sanjana, but she came through it stronger and more confident after proving she could play at a high level.
“I’ve always wanted to try goalie,” Sanjana said. “My parents were a huge support for me in making a decision to become a goalie, and they were the ones that told me to follow and stick with it full-time.”