Talk to high school coaches in the preseason and you’re bound to hear the phrase “we’re taking it one game at a time” more than once.
It may sound cliche, but they know that each season, each game, anything can happen.
The saying might ring most true for two Lancaster-Lebanon League field hockey teams this fall, as Octorara and Lancaster Country Day are set to compete as members of the league for the first time.
“We’re just going out with an open mind,” Octorara senior captain Emily Lantz said. “Changing leagues, it gives us more opportunities. We don’t really know what to expect, but I think it’ll be a lot better than the (Ches-Mont League). I think it’ll give us more chances to win.”
Those opportunities, both to play teams with more similar roster sizes and, for Country Day, schools that are geographically closer, were among the main factors in both schools applying to join the L-L League.
Octorara was voted in as the league’s 25th member last October, followed by Country Day in December.
Now comes the time to see how it all works out as the schools join a newly configured nine-team Section Three and open the season against league foes Friday.
Country Day will host Northern Lebanon, while Octorara will play at Lebanon.
“Your rookie season in a new league, there’s a lot to learn,” Country Day coach Betsy Heim said, “but the Tri-Valley was a very competitive league. We’ve been tested, so we’ve just got to play up.”
In addition to facing new opponents, Country Day will also face challenges with its roster, which stands at just 17 players.
Most of the girls at the school went out for soccer instead, giving the Cougars just one freshman to help replace six graduated seniors.
Heim has confidence in her squad’s speed, however, and its goalie. Senior Gaby Kuntz returns to to the cage after earning all-league honors last year.
The Cougars also have another advantage compared to Octorara: a familiarity with current L-L teams.
While Heim is a Manheim Township graduate, Country Day has scheduled non-league games against Section Three squads Pequea Valley, Annville-Cleona and Lebanon in recent years and scrimmaged Lancaster Catholic last year.
“We are a small squad,” Heim admitted. “We have some excellent returning players, but, looking at (the rest of Section Three), I feel like we’re going to have some reaches, we’re going to have some teams we can play with and we’ll just have to see what happens this season.
“There are a couple of teams out there that we haven’t seen at all, and those games are going to be tough for us, but, overall, my student-athletes are extremely excited about it.”
The excitement extends out to Octorara, although the Braves have a few more questions. Not only are they changing leagues, but, after consecutive District One playoff appearances, they’re now also moving into District Three.
And it’s not just the team that is used to calling the Ches-Mont League’s American Division home. Coach Jalisa Torres graduated from rival Oxford and played alongside a number of the current Ches-Mont League coaches during her high school career.
“My heart is there,” Torres joked of the Ches-Mont League. “I liked the competition — those schools were bigger, so the competition was certainly harder for us, but I liked that because it forced the girls to work a little bit harder.”
The Braves picked up a 2-1 victory over Solanco last season, but, besides that, their knowledge of both the L-L and District Three is limited. With just days of preseason left, however, researching her opponents isn’t a top priority for Torres.
Instead, she wants to focus on “tying up loose ends” and getting her team to play its best. To do that, the Braves will lean on a strong defensive line and returning junior goalie Maggie DeStephano, who Torres called “the most dynamic goalie I’ve ever seen.”
DeStephano was an all-league second-team selection along with Lantz, a forward. The senior led Octorara in scoring and also finished among the top 15 in the league in offense.
“Looking into the Lancaster-Lebanon League, it’s a big change,” Torres said. “We’re going into uncharted territory and I’m just trying to prepare them for the best season that we can have.
“It’s scary, but, yet, exciting and we’re happy to be here.”