Field hockey: Mahon helps FC United win prestigious tournament

The University of Connecticut field hockey team wasn’t the only state team making waves on the national scene last week.

After the Huskies captured their second NCAA Division I championship in a row on Nov. 23, a group of mostly Fairfield County high school players pulled off a milestone accomplishment of their own later in the week, at one of the premier events in the country.

Competing in the top pool, the Fairfield County United U-19 field team finished unbeaten at the 2014 National Field Hockey Festival, held Nov. 27-29 in Palm Springs, Calif.

The team, which included Wilton High junior Jillian Mahon, compiled a 5-0-1 record at the festival, which is one of the four major national recruiting events for youth hockey players during the year.

The big game was a 0-0 tie with the Pennsylvania-based WC Eagles, the top youth field hockey club in the country, as FC United survived a late penalty stroke and then a penalty corner after time had expired.

“It’s a huge win for Connecticut field hockey,” said Mahon, a midfielder on this year’s WHS team that finished 17-4-1. “In years past, (FC United teams) have come close, but never this far.”

“I had a really nice blend of girls and I knew they were going to do quite well,” said Ian Tapsall, who coached the team. “The closest the club has even come before was when we won our pool a few years ago. However, we had an inferior goals differential and came in second.”

The national festival, held for three days over the Thanksgiving weekend, is largest field hockey event in the world, attracting more than 9,000 visitors, and 250 teams, from the U.S., Canada, Europe and Caribbean. Teams compete in four age groups: U14, U16, U19 and Adult.

The U19 group featured 124 teams divided into 18 pools.

“It’s extremely high competition, because all these girls are trying to play Division I field hockey, especially in Pool A. It’s girls who all play year-round,” said Mahon.

Almost all the players on the FC United U-19 festival team are high school juniors (the team had one senior). Other members of the team were Bridget Lattimer and Laura Schwartzman (Darien), Jodie Baris and Jordan Ragland (Westport), Emma Coppock and Libby Tower (Redding), Katie Gruendel, Rebekah Silver and Claire Taben (Ridgefield), Jessica Lagano and Olivia Lesueur (Greenwich), Olivia Green (Chappaqua, N.Y.), and Fusine Govaert and Charlotte Cooper (Rye, N.Y.)

The girls have been playing on the same team since the seventh grade. Mahon said a disappointing performance last season at the Disney Classic in Florida, another major recruiting tournament, helped prepare the team for this year’s festival.

“We did not do that well. I think we learned from it. This year, going to California, we knew what we had to improve on,” she said. “We were better prepared this year.”

FC United won its first two games last Thursday, beating RAM (Pennsylvania), 3-0, and San Jose Fly, 5-2. On Friday, the team topped Maine Majestic Black, 3-1, and Lasting Legacy (Long Island), 4-0. After the big 0-0 tie with the WC Eagles on Saturday, FC United blanked Viper Red (Pennsylvania), 3-0, to win Pool A with 16 points.

For the six games, FC United outscored the opposition, 18-3.

“It’s a fantastic achievement. It was one of the toughest pools in the whole festival,” Tapsall said. “Jillian was a major part of that. She scored a beautiful goal in one of the games, and she played superbly.”

Mahon finished with five of the team’s 18 goals, and also had an assist.

Tapsall said the success at the festival takes FC United “to another level” in terms of being one of the elite clubs in the country.

“The proof in the pudding was the number of top (college) coaches who came out to watch the WC Eagles game,” he said, which showed how FC United, and the state, is beginning to rival the traditional recruiting hotbeds like Pennsylvania and Maryland.

“Now, we’re seeing that Connecticut is a force to be reckoned with in field hockey,” he said.

FC United has had a lot to do with that. The Darien-based club was formed in 2002 by Kelly Vegliante, along with several coaches, like Tapsall, with extensive experience in international competition.

“The club was established to basically find an outlet to play year-round, outside of high school,” Tapsall said. The club offers programs from the U12 level up to the U19 level, who commit to a busy schedule of practices and tournaments throughout the year. For the older teams, the focus is also on getting exposure at college recruiting events, such as the Disney Classic and the National Field Hockey Festival.

The club also offers a winter indoor program, with elite teams trying to qualify for the National Indoor Tournament in March, which is a five-on-five format.

Tapsall said the club has about 200 girls playing this winter, coming from all over Fairfield County.

“It’s a huge commitment,” he said. “The girls are willing to commit, and they want to learn.”

Wilton is well represented in FC United. Almost all of the starters on this year’s WHS team played in the FC United program.

In addition to Mahon, another player from the WHS varsity team, sophomore Gwen Hall, competed a the national festival last week, playing for the U16 team that finished fourth out of seven teams in the top pool with a record of 2-2-2.

Mahon said she is looking forward to next fall’s high school season, as Wilton returns all but four players from this year’s team. The Warriors will be looking to build off a dominating season, in what figured to be a rebuilding year.

“We had a really good season. A lot people thought we wouldn’t be as strong but I knew our players worked hard in the off-season,” said Mahon. “It was really nice to see everything come together.”

Mahon has been named a co-captain for next year’s team along with goalie Amanda Hendry, something she considers an honor as Hendry is one of the best goalies in the country.

As for this winter, Mahon said the goal is for her FC United team to qualify for the indoor nationals, and make strong showings at two prestigious tournaments, hosted by the WC Eagles and by the Jersey Intensity. The Connecticut girls want to prove that last week’s showing was no fluke.

“Hopefully, with our club team making a name as an elite club, we can show them that we are here and ready to stay at the top,” she said.