NORTH ANDOVER – At times, last season was a trying one for Merrimack College. Despite a 10-6-2 record, including a 29th consecutive trip to the Northeast-10 tournament, the Warriors were ravaged by injuries throughout the year and were eliminated by New Haven in the quarterfinals of the NE-10 tournament in November.
In May, a large chunk of that group graduated and 11 new freshmen were brought aboard for this season.
“When we started the season the biggest concern was our youth,” head coach Gabe Mejail said. “We have a lot of younger players. We brought in 11 freshmen and we have nine sophomores. Older players, when you get to your junior and senior year, you have just seen everything before. It’s that experience that is so key. But all of the younger players have come in and early in the season performed very well.”
(Ed. Note — this story will appear in an upcoming edition of The Eagle Tribune)
The Warriors are off to a fast start, however.
At 5-2 through seven games, the Warriors withstood a two-game drought at Pace and Southern New Hampshire after starting the year 3-0 at home. Last Saturday the Warriors beat Le Moyne at home, 2-1, and then walloped Bloomfield College, 7-0, on Tuesday night in New Jersey.
Through it all, Mejail has relied heavily on his tri-captains: Katie Bresciani, Marissa Maiolo and Deirdre Roberts.
“Having a younger team means the captains take on a much bigger role,” Mejail said. “Not only are they leading a group of younger teammates, but just because of numbers, there is also less fellow seniors to rely on and share that responsibility.”
Mejail’s captains take that responsibility seriously.
The trio – two seniors and a junior – have worked diligently to incorporate a the 11 new players into their culture both on and off the field.
“We need to lead by example with how we want to play,” Brescani said. “We work hard all the time. We play hard all the time. But we can’t just say that, we need to show that out on the field and lead by example.
Added Roberts, “As captains, it’s our job to set the tone. We need to show everyone what Merrimack soccer is, and that starts with us.”
Leading by example off the field and in the classroom has been a similar priority.
Before the season began, the Warriors traveled to New York for three days to practice and take part in pre-season games against LIU Post. The trip not only helped gel the team on the field, but behind the scenes, it started to build the bond.
“It was a great bonding experience,” said Roberts. “Hanging out away from the field, especially with as many new girls as we have, was good to bring everyone together. We had team meals, we practiced and had some games, and then we also had a lot of time to ourselves to get to know each other, even on the bus ride. We had an off day and we were able to go into New York. It definitely got us to be together in a more relaxed environment.”
The new players have been stitched seamlessly into the fabric of the program. It’s created great depth for the Warriors, who go as deep into their bench as any program in the conference. The depth, Maiolo says, has been a consistent key in Merrimack’s success in her time with the program.
“Having the depth we have definitely keeps us more fresh and well rested,” she said. “I think we have been able to run a lot of teams into the ground just because we’re more rested, and I hope as we get further into the year, as teams get more tired, we won’t be.
“Our younger players are forced to step up. But they’re all very good players, and it has meant that we have a lot of depth. At first, I think it’s natural to be more timid; I know I was when I was a freshman. But over the last few games not only are they attacking more but they’re being more vocal in communicating. You can tell that they’re getting more comfortable, which is awesome, because it means they’re going to play their game.”
Depth will be important, because Merrimack has always had a target on its back. The program, under Mejail, has created a culture of winning. In 31 seasons, he has a winning percentage of over .700, posting a record of 418-168-43. As a team, Merrimack extended its Division II record with its 30th consecutive winning season last season. Merrimack also finished in the top four of the NE-10 standings for the 28th time in 29 NE-10 seasons, which is also a league record.
“Merrimack in the NE-10 has always been feared,” Maiolo said. “I know I looked at some other schools when I was in high school and just being around the league, because we’ve been successful, everyone has a target on our back. It’s almost made it so that we don’t have just one rival, because everyone is looking to beat us every game. We always need to bring our best, because we’re getting everyone else’s best.”
Mike McMahon covers Merrimack College for The Eagle Tribune and is the founder and managing editor of The Mack Report. Mike is also on staff as a senior writer at College Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcMahonCHN