BOONE, N.C. – When the Appalachian State field hockey team stepped off of the field for the final time in 2017, they were at the conclusion of accomplishing one of their major goals, making the MAC tournament in their first season in the conference.
The Mountaineers finished 8-11 this past season, tallying its first season with at least eight wins since 2003. It was the breakout campaign that the team, and head coach Meghan Dawson, had been working towards since her first season back in 2015.
With 18 returning players and the addition of nine freshmen, the Mountaineers have set their sights on an even higher goal.
“If we could have another good year like we did last year, that would be really important,” Dawson said. “We really want to start building to win a MAC championship. Every year, we get closer and closer to it, so we’re building for that and that’s a really big goal.”
Before the Mountaineers open the regular season at Brandon & Erica Adcock Field on Friday against Towson, here are some key factors that could play into this season’s success and beyond.
Competition Across the Board
This past season, senior midfielder Taylor Cimbalist led the team in goals and finished the season as the third-leading scorer in the MAC. Her production will be missed, but the Mountaineers do bring back their second, third and fourth leading goal scorers from 2017 – junior Ali Williams, sophomore Meghan Smart and sophomore Veerle Van Heertum.
Amongst the trio mentioned above, they notched 15 goals and three assists. Williams and the pair of sophomores also recorded a total of 50 shots on goal, which made up more than 40 percent of the team’s total in 2017.
Even with impressive returning talent, the team’s nine freshmen are prepared to quickly make their own mark on the App State program.
“This year is really unique because there is competition for every single position on the field,” Dawson said. “We have a really hungry, hard-nosed freshmen class that wants to get down to business. They don’t want to goof around and all that stuff. They want to work hard and earn their spot.”
In the goal cage, junior goalkeeper Rachel Gaines will have her first true competition for the starting spot in net since she arrived in Boone in 2016. Redshirt freshman Madison Nuckols sat out this past season due to injury. The Callands, Va., native made 499 career saves in high school.
“This is going to be the first year that Rachel is going to be competing with someone right away for the starting spot in the goalkeeping cage,” Dawson said. “That’s a really cool dynamic.”
Changes to the Conference Tournament
In 2017, the Mountaineers rattled off four straight wins in October to help earn a spot in the conference tournament. With changes to the tournament format this season, all seven teams in the MAC will have a shot to win the tournament crown.
The tournament will begin on Oct. 31 with a play-in game between the teams who finish No. 6 and No. 7 in the regular season.
“When you only have four teams out of seven going, you never know if you’re on that brink,” Dawson said. “If you’re in that tiebreaker, at least everyone gets that shot. And, if you do well during the regular season, you get rewarded for it.”
Identity, Facilities on the Rise
Until 2017, the Mountaineers were without a conference. Even with playing games against what are now conference opponents such as Ohio, Ball State and Longwood in previous seasons, the team did not have a common set of opponents each season.
With a 3-3 conference record in their inaugural campaign, the Apps turned heads across the conference this past season, winning two of those matches away from the familiar confines of Adcock Field.
“It’s amazing and most of our girls that are on the team, especially our 2017 class and up, all came here in the belief that we would get a conference,” Dawson said. “It’s been a huge shift in our culture and our program just because of that.”
Dawson also said that the enhanced facilities and new fieldhouse have given the team a place to call home. Combined with on-field success, the team will also look to use the new fieldhouse as a way to help recruit future players to the Mountaineers’ program.
Appalachian will open its season with a pair of games this weekend at Adcock Field. The first will be on Friday against Towson at 7 p.m. and the second will be a Sunday showdown against Georgetown at noon.