BRISTOL - It was May 17, 2018 when the Indiansâ 2019 season began to take shape.
It was the regular-season finale against Windsor, a must-win game on the road the Newington girls lacrosse team - saddled with a 6-9 record - had to have to qualify for the state tournament.
The Indians entered the de facto postseason play-in game facing some adversity. Their starting goalie was out with an injury and their backup goalie wasnât present. Still, first-year head coach Allison Hoffman said her group went into the game confident. They try not to enter games with any expectations, she says, but this one felt âespecially wrong to lose.â
But ... they did lose.
In heartbreaking fashion, Newington fell 13-12 in overtime and one win shy of the state tournament for the third year in a row. The Indians had last reached the postseason in 2014 and followed up with a 5-10-1 record in 2015 and 6-10 finishes in 2016, 2017 and 2018. This time, it was breathtakingly close.
âIt was awful,â senior Maya Gajowiak recalled.
âIt was a heartbreaker,â Hoffman said. âWe were there. Last year was our turnaround year. We all thought we had it. We had the heart. We were always the team that had the heart.â
So there the Indians stood, agonizingly close to a postseason berth. All offseason, they wanted to get back. Itching, seething even, to get that chance again. So it was only appropriate Newingtonâs 2019 regular-season opener - April 1 - was against the team that had put a painful end to its state tournament hopes three seasons in a row.
In 2016 ... the Indians needed one more win to reach the playoffs and lost their final two games, including a 13-5 defeat to Windsor.
In 2017 ... the Indians needed one more win to reach the playoffs and lost its final game, a 25-10 defeat to Windsor.
In 2018 ... the overtime loss to Windsor.
âOur revenge game,â said Gajowiak.
Newington came out fired up, winning 16-11, and thatâs when Hoffman knew what her team was headed toward.
âThat was kind of what told me that we were gonna have a good year,â Hoffman said. âThat was the hint.â
The Indians eventually worked their way to a 4-5 mark midway through the season, but as soon rolled around to May they took off, winning two in a row over E.O. Smith and Bristol Eastern before coming into another matchup that seemed determined by fate.
In 2018, Newington outlasted Rocky Hill in a 9-8 overtime thriller, so the team headed into last Wednesdayâs senior night battle with the Terriers nervous, but ready.
âWe knew what to do. We figured out what to do,â Gajowiak said. âWe knew we needed to win the game. And we did.â
The Indians won 8-6 on their home field, setting off a celebration. For the first time since 2014, they were back in the state tournament, locking down an appearance in the Class M bracket.
âWe were so excited,â a beaming Gajowiak said. âWe havenât been to states in so long. As a senior, I havenât been there in my high school years so it was really important to me. I wanna be able to show off and do my thing with all the other seniors and show what weâve been working on our whole four years of high school. Iâm so excited.â
Newington, which defeated Bristol Central 13-3 on Friday for its fourth straight win before falling to Westhill 15-8 on Saturday, now sits at 8-8 with games left against Northwest Catholic and Berlin. The Indians are currently hold the No. 15 seed in the Class M rankings, but their spot in the bracket is sure not to matter much to them. The point is, theyâre dancing. Itâs a fitting culmination of what Hoffman has been able to build in just her second year in charge of the program.
âAmazing. Definitely amazing. You have no idea,â said Hoffman, unable to contain her enthusiasm after being asked what it was like to be the one to bring the program back to the postseason.
She graduated from Newington in 2013 and was a key member of the Indiansâ state tourney qualifying teams before becoming a volunteer assistant in 2014. She has seen the ups and downs and inconsistencies on the coaching staff. She moved up from volunteer to head coach of the JV team from 2015-2017. Every single year, a new head coach took over the program. There was no stability.
Now ... there is.
âI learned a lot from so many different coaching styles, but it was rough as a team just every year having different expectations,â Hoffman said. âLittle things like how they run practice or little drills that they do, or just attitude in general - they were all so different so it was hard. Every year, the kids didnât know what they were walking into. Every time they heard we were getting a new coach, they were like, âShould we come back?â I had to try to pull a lot of girls back in like, âDonât leave. Weâre gonna do this. Iâm not leaving. Weâre gonna get through this together.ââ
When she came onto the staff in 2014, Hoffman was not expecting to stick around. As a young college student just starting out, the timing wasnât great.
âI stayed for them,â she said. âTheyâre the reason I keep doing this every year. Iâm coming back for them, and Iâm gonna keep coming back for them for as long as I can. They needed [me]. I need them too. For real, I do.â
Thatâs why it was such a joy for her as she celebrated against Rocky Hill alongside seniors Gajowiak, Hannah Drew, Jilliam McCormick, Vanessa Nardi and Erin Stenvall.
Theyâve all gone down this road together.
âIâve watched the change every single year,â Hoffman said. âIâve watched this program grow and fall and stumble, try to find our way back. Itâs been rough, and now it just feels good. I feel like weâve found our footing. Weâre making our way up.â
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org