By CHRIS CHRISTOPHER
There is a key reason why Denise D’Esposito enjoys coaching.
“Just watching the kids,” the Ocean Township High School field hockey coach said. “You see them as freshmen. They leave you as seniors. You see them grow up as people and players. It’s rewarding to see them set a goal, reach it and perhaps go beyond it. When I went to Ocean, my best friend was a player on the team and she is still my best friend. You make memories in field hockey that you can’t make anywhere else. There is nothing like seeing a player score her first varsity goal or first winning goal.
“You feel it in your heart for those kids.”
D’Esposito is in her fifth year at the helm of the Spartans. She took a 54-28 career record into this season. The team went 15-3-2 last year.
“I would say I am tough, but fair,” D’Esposito said. “I push ’em hard. I really do. Our girls are book smart and I want them to be field smart. I constantly challenge them.”
Take the Spartans’ 4-0 victory over Point Pleasant Boro, for example. Despite the convincing win, D’Esposito still worked her players hard.
“We watched the video of the game,” she said. “I said, ‘We won 4-0 and I get it, but here is where we can improve. We want to get to the next level.’ The girls work hard. I love being around them. They are great kids with a great attitude. We have the makings of a championship team.”
D’Esposito is assisted by Danielle Reichardt, Janine Sterner and Jennifer Schoch. Reichardt and Schoch played under D’Esposito. The veteran coach takes pride in two of her former players returning as assistants.
“A ton of kids come back and help the program,” she said. “Kids love the program and come back to it. The kids know I care about them and that I care about the program. Therfe is a lot of tradition and pride here and they follow suit.”
D’Esposito knows when to be stern and when to lighten things up.
“I am not really an old school coach,” she said. “I am smart enough to know you can’t always be old school. I bring humor to some of the games. You work hard for three hours and sometimes you lose a big game. You have to keep it in mind they are only kids as if it is not fun they won’t want to be here. Win and have fun. When we lose, we don’t like it. We work at it so that we don’t constantly do the same thing wrong and lose again.”
D’Esposito is a 1979 graduate of Ocean where she also competed in basketball, bowling and softball. She won 16 varsity letters, a school record. She scored 22 goals a senior. Kelli Shapiro, now playing for East Stroudsburg University as a freshman, scored a school single-season record 33 goals last year for Ocean.
“She tried to beat it as a junior,” D’Esposito said. “I said, ‘You did not make it.’ She said, ‘I am going to get it as a senior.’ She had that goal on her mind for two years and she reached it.”
Despite the loss of Shapiro, the Spartans opened the regular season at 2-1-1.
“She played four years on the varsity,” D’Esposito said. “Like anything else, you know what is coming. During the summer, we prepared for not having her here. Now, the girls are meshing on that forward line. They have had to revamp and get used to the new team they have.”
The Spartans began the regular season with a 1-1 overtime tie against St. Rose. Senior midfielder Samantha Thurman tied the game for Ocean with a goal, putting home a rebound of a teammate’s shot. Sophomore forward Brianna Roskey erupted for three goals in a 12-0 conquest of Manalapan.
“Brianna was just all over the place,” D’Esposito said. “She has been playing real well. She is starting to come into her own. She has gotten into shape. She has very good stick work and has come along confidence wise. She keeps getting better in every game. She has improved her leadership, confidence and fitness. When you put all of that together, you get a better player.
The Spartans fell to Red Bank Catholic 3-1 in the third game of their regular season. Senior midfielder Rebecca Ruben scored for Ocean, converting a rebound of a teammate’s missed scoring attempt.
“They were definitely more fit than we were,” D’Esposito said of the Caseys. “In the second half, we were outrun and that translated into three different corners that they scored off of.”
There was a team meeting after the loss.
“I sat the girls down and said, ‘You’ve gotta play 60 minutes,’ ” D’Esposito said. “We should have been up 3-0 at halftime.
Ocean’s captains are Thurman, senior forward Morgan Hendley and senior defender Erin Tanasy. Each player is a three-year varsity starter. Each athlete has also played freshman and junior varsity ball.
“It is really nice to see them as senior captains and starters,” D’Esposito said. “They are 14 when they come to you. By the time they are 17 and 18, they are driving. They have come full circle and are great kids. I love working with them. They work so hard.”
The center midfielder, Thurman leads the team.
“I am probably the toughest on her as she is the quarterback of the team,” D’Esposito said. “She is our most fit athlete. She has 100 percent responsibility on her shoulders for what is happening on offense and defense. If the coach is to yell at anyone, it is the center midfielder. She takes our corners. She does a sub seven-minute mile. She goes 110 percent from end line to end line.”
Hendley was one of Ocean’s top scorers last season.
“She can take the ball 50 yards and score on her own as she has great stickwork,” D’Esposito said. “When everyone else is gassed, she digs deep and finds it and that inspires the other kids. She has taken on a more vocal role. She helps guide our new players.”
Tanasy is a key defensive player.
“She picks up the right wing, the player who generates the offense,” D’Esposito said. “She can shut people down as she is fast and has a ton of energy. She is smart with her stick work. She is a quiet go-getter. I tell her, ‘You will mark this girl. She is the best player on the other team.’ She says, ‘OK coach. No problem.’ ”
Ocean sophomore forward Brianna Roskey has a bright future.
“She is coming into her own and is only going to get better,” D’Esposito said. “She played her heart out against Red Bank Catholic. I am just excited to see what she will do. She is taking on a more vocal leadership role and she has the skills to back it up. As a freshman, she followed. Now, she is guiding.”
Ocean has also received contributions from senior forward Hannah Rosner, senior defender Marissa Conery, junior defender Maddie Dietrich, sophomore forward Kate Mostow, freshman midfielders Allison Dempsey and Samantha Roskey, sophomore midfielder Chloe Evangelista, senior defenders Pamela Molina and Samantha Scherr, sophomore goalie Caroline Rodgers and senior goalie Evi Mendez.
“Ruben has been a quiet, consistent player for two seasons,” D’Esposito said. “She is doing smart things on both sides of the ball.”
Rogers is in her first season in goal.
“She has done a great job,” D’Esposito said. “She is not intimidated. I was very concerned about that position. She gets better in every game. She is very athletic. She is quick and reacts well. She is good with her hands and her feet.”
The Spartans feature a diversified style of play.
“We have a combination of small ball and some big ball, depending on who we are playing and how they are pressing us,” D’Esposito said. “We will go with a short passing game and be under control. Our big ball game is more of a drive and run game like a fast break in basketball.”