Monday, June 26, 2017

Field hockey: Potter eager to take over Blue Streaks

Josie Potter walked away from the Warren Hills field hockey program two years ago in order to spend more time with her family.

Until recently, she had no intention of making a return to the sidelines. But coming back to be the head coach at her alma mater proved to be an opportunity she couldn't pass up.

Josie Potter
Potter was officially named the eighth head coach in the program's 53-year history during a Board of Education meeting on June 6, as previously reported by Open Mike. She succeeds Kate Rothman, who guided Warren Hills to a mark of 43-8 the last two seasons, along with back-to-back North 1, Group 3 sectional titles and its second straight Group 3 title in 2015. In '16, the Blue Streaks went 20-5 and earned a return trip to the Group 3 championship game -- a 5-0 loss to nemesis Ocean City.

"Two years ago, I resigned [as an assistant coach] because of my kids," said Potter, who lives in Palmer Township (Pa.) with her husband, Ian, and their sons, Brayden (8) and Owen (4). "[Athletic director] Geri McKelvey approached me about coming back. She said, 'We need you.' I [thought] about it for two weeks. I talked it over with my husband to make sure it was the right decision for me and my family. My boys are my No. 1 priority. But I'm a Blue Streak through and through."

McKelvey could not be reached for comment.

Potter, 34, a Health and Physical Education teacher at Warren Hills, previously served as an assistant under former coach Laurie Kerr for 11 seasons from 2004-14. Potter resigned, along with Kerr, after the Streaks won their first Group 3 title in '14, the school's first state championship in any female sport.

Kerr, also a star player at Warren Hills and 1987 graduate, turned the program into a powerhouse during her 15 seasons at the helm. Her teams went 264-71-12 overall and won or shared six Skyland Conference Delaware or Raritan Division titles, while capturing four of their five county championships in 2009, '11, '13 and '14.

In addition, the Streaks claimed eight of their 14 sectional titles and appeared in the Group 3 finals seven times under Kerr, who surpassed her predecessor and coach Luanne Ferenci (226-101-41 from 1981-99) as the winningest coach in program history.

Potter, then known as Josie Schantzenbach, is a 2000 graduate and played on Ferenci's teams from 1996-99, scoring 10 goals and earning MVP honors during her senior season in '99. The Blue Streaks lost a heartbreaker in the Group 3 final that year -- 2-1 in overtime to Ocean City on a controversial goal. The '96 team was the first to reach the state finals. She went on to play and graduate from East Stroudsburg University.

"Luanne is one of the best coaches around, and I learned a lot coaching with Laurie," Potter said.

Potter knows full well what she is getting into by taking over a program that is regarded as one of the best in New Jersey and is expected to win. Potter feels she is up for the challenge, and she is also hoping to bring some stability to a program that has remarkably changed coaches twice since 2014, despite winning two state titles.

"I can't answer how long I will coach, but my goal is to bring Warren Hills field hockey back where it needs to be," Potter said. "Player first, person first and then team. The focus should be on the kids, not the coach, and that hasn't been there [the last two seasons]. I tend to focus on the positives as opposed to the negatives. We will work on fixing those, not dwell on what went wrong. Nobody plays to lose. If we win it's because of [the players] not me.

"I don't want to be a coach who is one-and-done. That's not fair to the program or the girls."

Potter's coaching staff includes former standout player Erica Russell and newcomer Sarah Kaufman. Russell is moving up from the middle school program to coach the junior varsity, while Kaufman was recently hired by the school as a Health and Physical Education teacher, filling one of the vacancies created by Ferenci's retirement from teaching. A huge loss on the middle school level occurred when highly-regarded coach Laura Blackwell stepped down due to family reasons. And while Kaufman has no field hockey background as either a player or a coach, Potter said she will be a big asset.

"She has coached softball, volleyball and basketball and is a very confident coach, so I'm excited about that," Potter said. "You can teach the game."

Warren Hills, which is expected to contend for another Group 3 championship in 2017, returns seven starters, including seniors Tali Popinko (13 goals, 9 assists), Rebecca Sigman (17 goals, 10 assists) and Alyssa Appleby (14 goals, 3 assists) who combined for 44 of the team's 84 goals in '16. Senior midfielder Mikayla Dugan (6 goals), along with senior backs Sydney Moskal and Rebecca Lezon, as well as talented sophomores Kate Fenner and Sam Dugan, who both saw a lot of playing time as a freshman, are also key returning players.

Senior Maggie Titus, who Potter calls a "solid goalie," will start in the cage after seeing limited time as a backup in 2016.

"I coached this senior class, and I had some other players in class or coached them in track," said Potter, who will have about 20 incoming freshmen players, including a few blue-chippers expected to make an immediate impact. "I know the personalities, but I haven't seen some of them play."

Having been away for two years from a sport that is always changing and evolving, Potter has spoken with referee and former Blue Streaks coach Genya Pantuso about rules changes over the last few seasons and for 2017, while also relying on Russell's coaching experience.

"Erica is a great resource so I'm not too worried about [having been away]," Potter said.

Going into its 53rd season, Washington/Warren Hills is 644-256-92 overall. The program has won at least 20 games in six straight season, including a school-best 23 wins in 2014 and '15.

The schedule, as always, is challenging with independent games against state powers West Essex (last year's Group 2 champion and winner of the TOC) and Madison. And of course a rugged Skyland Conference slate including nemesis Voorhees and Hunterdon Central, as well as perennial Group 4 runner-up Bridgewater-Raritan. A season-opening game vs. powerhouse Oak Knoll was originally slated for Tuesday, Sept. 5, but Potter said that one has since been removed from the schedule. The Streaks will instead play their annual rivalry contest against Hackettstown on a date to be determined.

Warren Hills' second game at home against Hunterdon Central should be fun. After all, it was the Red Devils who ended the Streaks' three-year reign as Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament champions last season with a 2-1 win in the title game played at Hackettstown.

Another one to watch will be on Saturday, Sept. 30, when Warren Hills hosts Phillipsburg. Former Streaks star Toni Popinko, Tali's oldest sister, was recently named the new head coach of the Stateliners after previously serving as an assistant.

2017 schedule

(Times subject to change)

(Raritan Division games in bold)

Thursday, Aug. 24 (scrimmage) -- Easton (Pa.) 
Saturday, Aug. 26 (scrimmage) -- at Rumson-Fair Haven
Monday, Aug. 28 (scrimmage) -- Mount Olive
Thursday, Aug. 31 (scrimmage) -- at Newton
Thursday, Sept. 7 -- Montgomery, 4 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 9 -- Hunterdon Central, 1:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 12 -- at Watchung Hills, 3:45 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 14 -- West Essex, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 16 -- North Hunterdon, 11 a.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 19 -- Hillsborough, 3:45 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 20 -- Madison, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 23 -- Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament first round, TBD
Tuesday, Sept. 26 -- at Ridge, 3:45 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 28 -- at Voorhees, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 30 -- Phillipsburg, 11 a.m.
Tuesday, Oct. 3 -- Bridgewater-Raritan, 3:45 p.m.
Thursday, Oct. 5 -- at Montgomery, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 7 -- Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament quarterfinals, TBD
Tuesday, Oct. 10 -- at Pingry, 3:45 p.m.
Thursday, Oct. 12 -- Watchung Hills, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 14 -- Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament semifinals, TBD
Tuesday, Oct. 17 -- at North Hunterdon, 3:45 p.m.
Thursday, Oct. 19 -- at Phillipsburg, 3:45 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 21 -- Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament final, TBD
Saturday, Oct. 21 -- Voorhees, 3:45 p.m.
Monday, Oct. 23 -- NJSIAA sectionals first round (Groups 2 and 3)
Thursday, Oct. 26 -- NJSIAA sectionals second round
Tuesday, Oct. 31 -- NJSIAA sectional semifinals (Groups and 3)
Thursday, Nov. 2 -- NJSIAA sectional finals (Groups 2 and 3)
Tuesday, Nov. 7 -- NJSIAA state semifinals
Saturday, Nov. 11 -- NJSIAA state finals at Bordentown Regional High School
Monday, Nov. 13 -- Tournament of Champions play-in game
Wednesday, Nov. 15 -- Tournament of Champions semifinals
Friday, Nov. 17 -- Tournament of Champions at Kean University

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