MEDINA — The Barker field hockey team practiced not at Barker HS this week, but on the turf playing surface at Medina's Veterans Park.
The Vets Park turf serves to prepare the Lady Raiders for this weekend's Class C state tournament, to be played on turf at Cicero-North Syracuse HS, approximately 150 miles from the quiet town of Barker.
For all the successes of Barker field hockey in recent years, the Lady Raiders are two wins away from something that has always eluded them: a state championship title. Barker will face Cazenovia at 3:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon in Cicero, in a Class C state semifinal game.
If they win, the Lady Raiders will advance to face either Pierson-Bridgehampton or Whitney Point in the state championship game at 12:30 p.m. Sunday in Cicero.
"Our team has always worked hard for what we get," Barker senior captain Olivia Denny said. "It's on the basis of skill, but it doesn't come easily. Coach says that we're not putting in all this extra time just to lose, so we're making sure to give full effort all the way."
Under the guidance of second-year varsity coach Jeff Costello, the Lady Raiders rolled through the Niagara-Orleans League regular season with an 11-1 record, before defeating Roy-Hart, Holland and Eden in the Section VI tournament. Barker then emerged from a hard-fought game against East Rochester last Saturday with a 1-0 victory, on the strength of a beautiful stick-handling play by Gabby Clare that led to a late score by Erin Greenwald.
Denny, senior Heather Mason and junior Melissa Grosshans all earned first-team All-Niagara-Orleans League honors this season, but in a pre-practice interview on Wednesday afternoon, captains Denny and Mason wanted to credit the entire team for its work in reaching this level of state play.
Denny and Mason said that field hockey can tend to run in the family, crediting their sisters for getting them involved in the sport at a young age. They also gave credit to coach Costello for providing an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning, helping players to develop their games at all times, even when the stakes are high.
"When there's a problem, Coach goes through what's wrong, and he takes the time to explain," Denny and Mason said. "It's really teaching, and it comes from his roots of coaching girls at the JV level, because some of them start when they know nothing about field hockey."
Costello moved through the Barker ranks as junior varsity coach, coaching Denny and Mason as JV players in seventh and eighth grade, before the two moved up to the varsity level full-time as high school freshmen. Last season, the three re-joined forces for a run to the state semifinals that ended in a loss to Southampton. In that game, Barker took a 1-0 lead at halftime before falling by a 2-1 margin. The Lady Raiders earned a penalty corner with no time left but could not score, Costello said.
Denny and Mason also played on a state semifinal team as freshmen, where Barker lost 1-0 to Pierson-Bridgehampton. In 2000, the Lady Raiders earned their lone trip to the state championship game by defeating Pierson on penalty strokes in a snowstorm, Costello said. (Barker ended up losing to Afton, 5-1, in the 2000 final.)
Saturday will mark the first time Barker and Cazenovia have ever faced each other in a field hockey game. The Lakers (15-4-1) are no slouch, having won state titles in 2010 and 2011, and are led by goalkeeper Kimber Nourse, who boasts a stout 0.8 goals-against average this season and earned a shutout against Hoosick Falls in the quarterfinal round. Barker, of course, counters with sophomore Caitlyn Mason, who has 13 shutouts in 2013.
Cazenovia has won eight sectional titles, and is led offensively by Rachel McLaughlin, who has scored six goals so far this postseason.
"We're very, very similar," Cazenovia coach Lorraine Scheftic told the Oneida Dispatch. "It's kind of eerie."
Although Barker lost key players such as Jess Heffren and Kayla Moeller, the Lady Raiders quickly found production from younger players who stepped into larger roles with ease. Denny and Mason (both of whom served as team managers in sixth grade), said it was tough to replace last year's graduating class — but you certainly can't argue with this year's results.
Heading into this weekend, Denny and Mason said the trickiest part is the high level of unfamiliarity with the opposition. Local rivals such as Medina, Roy-Hart, Kenmore and Akron are seen year after year, but that's not a case with a team like Cazenovia.
Still, no matter what happens against the Lakers, this Barker field hockey season has been quite a success.
"We've had so much success over the last few years, and the success comes with high standards," Mason said. "Especially in a small town like Barker, where everybody knows who's who, there's definitely pressure to keep the tradition alive. But this week we're kicking it in, keeping up the focus during practice, and we're excited for Saturday."