Eagles want to keep building respect in field hockey

Defender Megan Keller is one of four seniors on this year’s Smyrna High field hockey team. Delaware State News file photos

SMYRNA — Yes, Megan Keller is well aware that Smyrna High opens its field hockey season against powerhouse Delmar.

All the Wildcats have done is win four state titles and 62 games in a row.

But Keller, a senior defender, hopes that just motivates the Eagles to work harder in pre-season.

“As a defender, they’re super good,” Keller said about Delmar. “But we’re going to try our hardest to put up the best fight we can against them. We’ll use that as a way to push us.

“It’s good that Delmar’s first. It’ll push us to practice a little harder.”

Besides, Smyrna proved it was a pretty good team itself last fall.

The Eagles finished 9-6-1 after losing to Padua in the DIAA Division I state tournament quarterfinals. It was Smyrna’s second-straight tourney appearance after not making the playoffs since before 2009.

All the Eagles’ losses last season were to state tournament teams, as well, despite having a squad that featured only four seniors but six freshmen.

Emily Thompson thinks the Eagles’ younger players have a great deal of potential.

“The Henlopen Conference is a tough conference no matter what sport you’re in,” said coach Nicki Shirey, who is also Smyrna’s softball coach. “Having a shortened season, with the 12 games we have, every game is going to be competitive.

“We’ve been chipping away each year, as a program. I’m excited about the season.”

The Eagles, who host Delmar on Oct. 20, play 11 Henlopen schools plus Padua on their schedule, which is condensed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Smyrna’s players hope they’re ready to be a consistent contender for a state tournament berth now. Senior goalie Brynn Rifino was a first-team all-Henlopen Northern Division selection a year ago.

Nicki Shirey

“We were seeded seventh, which is the highest since I’ve been here,” she said. “So it was a rewarding experience — especially since some of our starters were freshmen players. And a bunch of girls that are my age, it was our first year starting, as well.
“I’m already seeing collective teamwork. We’re already doing way better than we have before.”

The Eagles did graduate three first-team all-North players, including one at each position — offense, midfield and defense.
But junior Madi Simpson, who made second-team all-North as a junior, and honorable mention all-North player Ryla Wilber both return.

Smyrna did start three freshmen last fall. Shirey believes that group of sophomores is ready to play an even bigger role this year.

“It’s a great group of seniors,” said Shirey. “And we had a big group of freshmen last year that are ready to go. They fill in the spots nicely.”

Like most Henlopen programs, the Eagles played in summer-league games at DE Turf over the last few months. They’ve still got a few more games left heading into the high school season.

So even with the late start to the season, Smyrna’s players feel like they’re ready to go.

Goalie Brynn Rifino was a first-team All-Henlopen North pick last year as a junior.

“I felt like we did really well (last year),” said senior forward Emily Thompson. “It showed us what we really can do moving forward. I’m excited with all the potential and talent we have on the team this year. …. We want to prove that we can hang with the top teams in the state.

“It’s so exciting to see how far they’ve grown,” she said about the sophomore class. “I think they’re pretty used to it (playing varsity) by now.”

“From the start, we connected more,” said senior back Abbie Anderson. “And we have a lot of skill on this team. We have a lot of potential.”

Six of Smyrna’s first seven games are against schools that made last year’s state tournament. The Eagles go to Lewes to face defending Division I state champion Cape Henlopen on Oct. 29.

Of course, being in the Henlopen Conference, Smyrna’s players expect every game to be tough.

“Every single team is very competitive and challenging,” said Keller. “We have to have that positive mindset all the time. Even if we lose the game, we use that to build us.”