HANOVER — Rachel Keating graduated from Hanover High School in 2008 with no intention of moving back to her hometown. She had vet school in her plans, and although she loved growing up in Hanover, she wasn’t going to live there full time again.
About five years later, and less than a year after graduating from the University of Maine, Keating is not only back in Hanover but coaching the varsity girls’ lacrosse team, where she had been a star. She has the Indians off to a 1-1-1 start and primed to top last year’s 8-9 campaign.
“It’s pretty awesome so far,” Keating said at a practice last week. “They’re a great group of girls to work with, which makes it really enjoyable as well. I’m definitely happy to be back.”
As much fun as it is, Keating said, it’s weird to be on the bench instead of the field, and the differences between then and now are striking.
It wasn’t too long ago that Keating was a Patriot League all-star defender helping the fledgling program turn things around. The Indians won just a single game her freshman year. They played on a less-than-ideal field — “dirt, not grass,” Keating specified — and only a few athletes played lacrosse year-round or even did offseason workouts.
Now, those trends are out the window. Making the state tournament is more of an expectation than an achievement, having been there six years in a row, a run that started in Keating’s junior year. About half the program’s 50 athletes play on more than just the high school team and, most visibly, they now play on a two-year-old artificial turf field at the new Hanover High.
Altogether it means a much stronger program, with this year’s squad particularly deep, talented, and experienced. The Indians returned 12 members of the 2012 varsity, including six starters.
Senior captain Taylor Graf, an attacker committed to Southern New Hampshire University, owns a team-high 13 points (nine goals, four assists) three games into the season.
“When she’s on, she’s definitely on,” Keating said. “She has a great supporting offense, obviously. They’re great with feeding her and feeding each other. But obviously they’re seniors and have been playing a while.”
Another senior captain, midfielder Meghan O’Brien, is a part of that supporting cast, putting up four goals and three assists, both good for second on the team. Senior attacker Rachael Lawrence (two goals, three assists) is right behind her, as is freshman midfielder Chachi Smigliani (three goals, two assists).
Keating said the emergence of Smigliani and freshman midfielder Brielle Prouty have afforded the Indians a depth they hardly expected, a safety net ensuring the program will not “just plop after this season.”
“They just came in and jelled right away,” Graf said of the four rookies on the varsity roster. “I feel like we don’t even know they’re freshmen out there. They work just as hard as everyone else.”
While the offense often takes care of itself, Keating has stressed the importance of a sound defense. She moved around the field while playing with the Maine club team — the school doesn’t have a varsity program — but was a backfield mainstay for the Indians in high school, so she finds pride in bearing down when opponents have possession.
The team badly wanted to play a zone defense, and, even though it was “a jumbled mess” at first, Keating is having them work at it.
It’s moments like that that have endeared Keating to the team in such a short time, according to the leaders.
“We love her,” said Lawrence, one of the four captains. “I think she looks at us as equal to her. We get a lot of say in what we do, and she’s always listening to us and taking our suggestions.”
Being receptive is part of Keating’s ongoing process of trying to find a happy medium — not a red-faced coach who yells all the time, but not the players’ best friend, either.
Coaching is not a completely new role for her, as she gained some experience in an informal role with the Maine club team. But being at the helm of the program she once led as a player is of a different nature. That rings especially true when Keating remembers that some of the girls are sisters of her former teammates.
It’s the sort of situation and dynamic made possible only by the return of a relatively recent alum, and no one is really complaining. With vet school still in her eventual plans, Keating is in Hanover for the foreseeable future, back where it all began.
“I never thought I’d come back to Hanover, to even work in Hanover,” Keating said. “But I’m definitely happy to do it, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s still a learning experience for me, too.”Continued...