COLTS NECK – Coming off an historic season which saw them win their first sectional title in program history a year ago, Colts Neck is faced with a number of challenges entering this season that they’ll need to overcome if they plan on duplicating last year’s groundbreaking season. 


The Cougars finished 17-2-1 last season beating defending champion Freehold, 2-0, in the NJSIAA North 2, Group III final on goals by Ally Royle and Aryana Muscara.


Freehold had eliminated the Cougars the two previous years in the second round of the state playoffs so in addition to winning their first-ever sectional title, beating the Colonials in the process added a little icing to the cake.


They also captured the Shore Conference A North championship – another program first – going 11-0-1 in the division before embarking on their state title run.


“Winning the sectional title and division championship last season was just huge for us,” Colts Neck head coach Maria Merlucci said of the achievement. “It was four or five years in the making and getting some really good talented players in just trying to establish or build a program. 


“Last year we had five or six seniors that were four-year varsity starters,” Merlucci continued. “This year we’ve had to find some replacements for them. We do have the people in the right spots, now it’s just a matter of getting everybody to mesh together.  We’re still pretty good. We’ve only played five games and this is our first loss.”


The Cougars were 4-0 before Thursday’s 2-0 loss to a red-hot Middletown South club that came into the season unranked but improved to 7-1 with four of their seven wins coming against preseason top 10 teams, including a 9-0 win over Ocean Township – ranked seventh.


Both Royle (7 goals, 4 assists) and Muscara (8 goals, 6 assists) – an All-Division selection – have graduated, along with a number of other stalwarts from that strong senior class that laid the foundation of a new era of field hockey for the Cougars.


In all, the Cougars’ top four goal scorers from a year ago, including All-Division pick Amy Flood, who led the team with 17 goals along with three assists, have departed.


All-Division selection Amy McGee, who scored 12 goals and nine assists last season, and second-team All-Shore defender and A North Player of the Year Madison Bellows have also moved on and will be tough to replace.


However, the Cougars do return senior starting forwards Taylor Schandall and Jenna Filingeri and junior forward Isabella Ferrandino, who saw considerable action as a sub a year ago and already has four goals with one assist to her credit this season.


Schandall scored six goals and led the team with 13 assists a year ago, while Filingeri recorded seven goals and three assists to help fuel last year’s epic championship run. Filingeri leads the team in goals scored this season with five, while Schandall has a team-leading seven assists with one goal. Both will be counted on heavily this season to provide leadership as well as scoring punch. 


“Jenna’s a senior and she moved up from middie up to forward this season and Izzie was a midfield or forward sub last year so she’s a first-time starter. They’re getting used to working with Taylor, who’s our right wing and a four-year varsity starter, so there are some growing pains right now,” said Merlucci.


Junior Gabriella Cataldo saw spot duty last season scoring one goal and steps into a starting role at forward and has responded with two goals and five assists so far this season.


Senior Gemma Schauer at left midfield and sophomore Bella Rivero on the right have expanded roles as starters this season and each has contributed two goals thus far.


Defensively, replacing Bellows at the center fullback spot and Muscara at center midfield had been the biggest concern for Merlucci.


“Losing those two in the center has opened up some gaps for us this year so I have a sophomore at midfield and a junior in the back.”


Lilly Krok is starting at center midfield and Madison Flynn is at the center fullback this season and are faced with the unenviable task of replacing two of Colts Neck’s all-time best.   


The Cougars are in good shape though on the outside defensively with seniors Kayla Wade and Liz Whalen back as three-year starters.


“They were really solid today,” said Marlucci of Wade and Whalen’s play. “We got beat up the middle quite a bit today.”


Junior goalkeeper Stephanie LoNano, who had a breakout sophomore campaign in the nets recording 86 saves and 12 shutouts in the first 19 games, is back, as is senior Helen Kiechlin who stopped 26 shots a year ago giving the Cougars two quality backstops they can choose from.


“Last year’s team played together for four years,” Merlucci said. “This year we have some freshmen and sophomores that were thrown into the mix now so it’s just some rebuilding and getting used to playing with each other. We just have to get better every game, but I’m happy with the direction of the program. It’s just going to take some time.”


UPDATE: The Cougars (5-1, 4-1) rebounded nicely from Thursday’s loss to Middletown South with a 3-0 win over eighth-ranked Freehold on Friday. Ferrandino, Filingeri and Jessica Thesing all scored for Colts Neck. Ava Matino and Schandall each chipped in with an assist. LoNano stopped eight shots and Kiechlin stopped two, as they combined to post the team’s fifth shutout of the season.  The Cougars have now outscored their opponents, 22-2.