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by Frank Aceto
Associate Sports Editor
Jen Haney called it quits after last year.
But in a number of ways, the former Hudson head field hockey coach never actually left.
"Jen and I are best friends," first-year Lady Explorers head coach Laurie Wilkins said. "She came to our tryouts and will never separate herself from the program. She still means a lot to us."
Haney, the 2013 National Coach of the Year, spent 13 years with the Hudson field hockey team. Wilkins spent the last four years as Haney's varsity assistant.
"I will miss her greatly," Wilkins said. "She gave me my first experience in the coaching world. She's a phenomenal coach, teacher and mom. I couldn't have asked for a better role model."
Fortunately, Wilkins should be in good hands.
The Lady Explorers have racked up a number of wins over the years.
Last year was a memorable season for Hudson.
The Lady Explorers finished 13-3, which included a 12-game winning streak.
Hudson lost a 1-0 decision to Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown in a Division I regional semifinal contest.
The Lady Explorers lost a handful of key players last year.
This list includes midfielder Kiley Merrill, who is playing at Miami University in Oxford; forward Maria Russell, who is playing at Ohio University in Athens; and midfielder/defender Erin Hoover, who is playing at The Ohio State University in Columbus.
Also graduating were defenders Jackie Ulmer, Krista Jones and Elizabeth Bashian.
Despite those losses, Hudson won't be lacking depth. The Lady Explorers have 22 players on the varsity roster and 25 on the junior varsity team.
"That shows the program is growing," Wilkins said. "We lost six very strong players, which obviously opened up new spots for some of the younger players."
Hudson's starting goalkeeper, senior Jackie Kisthardt, will be back between the pipes.
"Jackie was a huge part of our winning streak," Wilkins said. "She shut out some major teams. She has a presence."
Other returning senior starters are forwards Marybeth Slager and Olivia Green.
Wilkins also believes seniors Meredith Pinkerton and Kate Cronan will see the field on a regular basis.
"We can play Meredith pretty much anywhere," Wilkins said.
The key junior players are defender Katherine Murray and midfielder Jordan Nenni.
"Katherine is going to step into Jackie Ulmer's role as the back wall," Wilkins said. "Jordan is lights out."
Sophomore midfielder Maddie Valko will make a difference, according to Wilkins.
"Maddie is a first-year varsity player with great talent," she said. "She loves the sport and she put a lot of time in the offseason."
Another sophomore is defender Shelby Johnson, a first-year player.
"Shelby has the fight and drive," Wilkins said. "Opponents will have a tough time playing against her."
Wilkins also believes freshmen midfielders/defenders Meghan Daly and Katie Peel will see some varsity time.
"We have some young talent," Wilkins said. "All of the girls looked strong during tryouts and played together."
Don't expect Hudson to have any chemistry issues.
"They want to focus on being a family the whole season," Wilkins said. "They all have each other's backs. We don't have really strong players like we did in years past, but the whole group is strong."
Wilkins, a 2010 graduate Kent State graduate, played field hockey for four years.
The standout forward also played four years at Ottawa Hills High School. She teaches third grade at McDowell Elementary.
Wilkins' assistant is Louise Knox, who was Hudson's seventh-grade coach last year. She was a member of the Lady Explorers when they won the state championship in 1986.
"Louise brings tradition and history back into the program," Wilkins said.
The junior varsity coach is Kristen LaScola, a former Hudson field hockey player who graduated in 2004.
The Lady Explorers may be overlooked by some of the top teams in the area because of their losses from last year.
Wilkins, on the other hand, knows her team can't be taken lightly.
"I have no doubt that we will be competitive," she said. "We have to work a little harder and prepare ourselves mentally. We have a hefty schedule. We definitely will be a much different team at the end of the season than we will be at the beginning."
Hudson is scheduled to open the 2014 season at Western Reserve Academy Aug. 21 at 4:30 p.m.