Take a first-year coach. Take away her home field, and give her a rutted, rocky practice surface. And then give her a roster of hardworking women that make the plays without making excuses. Stir.
The result, at least in 1986, was a 17-1-5 record and Watertown’s first state championship in field hockey. Eileen Donahue had just become varsity coach. Victory Field was under renovation, so the Raiders played their home games in Belmont. Fillipello Park, their practice facility was in disrepair. But the team’s preparation and work ethic turned these circumstances from a recipe for disaster into a template for triumph. Coach Donahue recalls, “They never gave up. They played with intensity, toughness, and hustle.” The practices were as hard of the games, Donahue notes. The players would jog from the high school to the east end, only to drill and sprint endlessly, offense and defense battling it out on every play.
The Raiders were not building from scratch. The previous year, they had finished 11-2-5 en route to a playoff berth. And now, having tasted at least one round of postseason play, they were hungry. Tri-captains Lisa Berardinelli, Nancy Burke and Jeannie Minelli led a young squad that included Paula Nevins, Kara Romanelli, Heather Stuckey, Debbie Butler Carol D’Aloisio, Barbara MacNeil, Lisa Forte, Kathi Morrison, Lauren Hegarty, Julie Mandile, Valerie Bayiates, Marlene Demerdjian, Cathy Mastroianni, Kelly Khozozian and Cathy Guden. Together the team was united as few are. All four classes contributed to tenacious defense and a clutch offense. And the Middlesex League had little choice but to take notice.
The Raiders opened strong, jumping out to a 4-0-2 start, giving up just one goal in those six games. Donahue warned, “the season’s still young,” but increasingly it became clear that something special was happening. The wins kept coming; only Division I powerhouse Melrose managed to slip by the Raiders, who racked up a 12-1-5 regular season. A 5-0 blitzing of Burlington clinched a playoff spot, with Berardinelli and Guden tallying two goals apiece. And it was onto the tournament.
In the first game, Berardinelli scored the only goal of the game as the Raiders slipped by Ipswich. The best defense turned out to be a good offense, as Watertown controlled the field of play; goalie Morrison did the rest, making two keys in the second half to preserve the victory. Next up: top seed Amesbury. And here, in the mud, the story was the same – the attacking pressure of Romanelli, Minelli, and Mandile dictated the tempo and tone of the game. Twenty minutes in, Mandile slammed home a loose ball to give the Raiders the lead; Stuckey added another goal early in the second half to make it 2-0. Amesbury struck back quickly, but the game ended 2-1 as the defense resisted a final flurry in the last two minutes. Goliath had been slain; the march was on. A photo caption says it all: “bloody knees, dirty faces, and smiles.”
Those smiles would keep coming. In the semifinals, Wilmington fell 1-0 on a Mandile goal, assisted by Guden with Burke and Berardinelli anchoring a stingy defense. In the North finals, the Raiders claimed the regional title with a 2-0 shutout of Manchester. Stories of the game report that the road to victory remained the same as it had in practice so long ago: a “relentless offensive attack and a defense that allowed only one shot on goal.” Guden scored midway through the first half on a pass from Hegarty, deflating Manchester and from thereon the game wasn’t as close as the final score. Whenever the ball got past the Raider front line, Hegarty, Nevins, and Berardinelli sent it back the other way; behind them Burke and Khozozian protected goalie Morrison from harm. They “played like they were possessed!” raved one local scribe. But they weren’t done yet.
The state title game against Milton -which entered the contest 20-1-2 – was one for the highlight reels. After a scoreless first half, Milton broke through tate for a 1-0 lead (just the second goal the Raiders had allowed in the tournament). But with the defense holding firm, the offense kept the ball alive in the Milton zone – and with just four seconds to play, Jeannie Minelli redirected a Cathy Guden shot into history. The game went into overtime, growing ever more tense as the minutes clicked by. Double overtime. Triple, sudden death overtime. And suddenly, four minutes in, Heather Stuckey drove the ball towards the net. In the ensuing tie-up, sticks flying, Julie Mandile made solid contact . . . and the celebration began. 2-1, Watertown.
A longtime observer of the Watertown scene, the Press’ Bob Ford put it this way. The team, he wrote, had “an impossible dream, that by intensity and drive became the possible and realized dream.” They say people don’t get what they deserve. Well in 1986, in a small corner of a big country, the Watertown field hockey team got exactly what it deserved. A state championship for the ages.