By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Former Mainland Regional standout Ali Juliano took over the field hockey program at Atlantic City prior to the 2014 season, and she walked into a pretty good situation because the Vikings had some outstanding talent and leaders coming into their own.
Players such as Abby Anmuth and Pinelopi Siganos, who graduated in 2015, helped set the tone for the new brand of Vikings field hockey, as the program quickly built itself into a contender in the rough-and-tumble Cape-Atlantic League American Conference. This year’s seniors included outstanding players such as Julia Falvo, Kiersten Campbell and Lillie Cutugno, and another player who was largely overlooked during her career but was one of the more vocal leaders on the team.
Hannah Mackler admittedly has a big personality, and her teammates fed off her energy and positive attitude to put together one of the most successful two-year runs in the program’s history. The Vikings went 13-6 in 2014 and made their first playoff appearance since the 2007 season, and beat Millville in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 4 tournament before running into national powerhouse Eastern Regional. This past fall, Mackler helped lead Atlantic City back to the playoffs, as the Vikings went 11-8-2 before running into a tough Shawnee squad in the opening round of sectionals.
Amy Smith stepped down as coach prior to the 2014 season and Juliano, a first-year coach, was hired. Mackler said it didn’t take long for the new coach to gel with her players.
“Going into junior year, we really didn’t know how everything would be. We knew coach Smith was leaving and everything was up in the air. We didn’t know who the coaches were, what their style was, so everything was questionable,” Mackler said. “But once we started working with coach Juliano and (assistant coach Samantha) Sickler, we really saw everything coming together. Our confidence grew and we were really successful.”
The Vikings won six of their first eight games in 2014 and grabbed the No. 8 seed in the sectional playoffs, where in the first round they toppled Millville, 4-0, for the first playoff win in school history.
“People are reluctant to give Atlantic City good press. I don’t know why. But getting all the press we did two years ago — and this year as well — was a big deal to us. It boosted our confidence and it made us want to win so bad,” Mackler said. “We knew we were the underdog, and it was such a good feeling to win and show everyone that we are capable of having a team that can make the playoffs.”
Atlantic City’s success in 2014 woke up the rest of the league, and this past fall teams took the Vikings much more seriously, which made the Vikings’ return to the playoffs that much more impressive. They lost two of their top players and were facing better efforts from opponents, but still won 11 games and returned to the playoffs.
“We knew we were losing a bunch of key members, such as Pinelopi and Abby and some other seniors, basically our entire middie line needed to be replaced. So we knew this year was going to be a bit of rebuilding year. We still had the same confidence we had the year before, but we knew we had to put in work. The momentum was there and we all wanted (to return to the playoffs),” Mackler said. “This past year, everyone had their guard up. They didn’t expect us to be a good team two years ago, but this year everyone expected it and worked specifically to beat us. They really prepared for us. It was harder, definitely. We knew teams were mad. We beat Mainland (in 2014) and we had a really close game with EHT, so there were some tensions building and we knew they were coming for us. It’s nice to be thought of as a competitive team.”
Mackler was a key part of Atlantic City’s success on defense, along with players such as Izzy and Georgia Turner. Teams had to work hard to score goals on the Vikings, and Mackler was one of the emotional leaders during tense games. But, she also knew how to have plenty of fun.
“I’m a very type-A personality and a natural leader, so I’ve always gone out with the intention of motivating people. I always want people to be on their game, happy, having fun. I always tried to make it a big thing to involve the younger girls, be nice to them, answer any questions they might have about school or whatever. When I came in as a freshman, the older girls really took me in and I’m still friends with them. So I’ve always taken it as I should do that for other people,” she said. “I think the people on our team were naturally outgoing and fun people, so everything we did, we had fun with it. It was hard not to have fun.”
After each of the past two seasons, Mackler put together a highlight video from clips she had taken throughout the year. It was her way of showing the team all the good times throughout the season, and also a way to channel her creative energy.
“There weren’t any issues with anyone and there were a bunch of big personalities — myself included — so everything was fun, the practices, the car washes. And I liked being able to capture all of that and make something fun for everyone at the end of the season,” Mackler said. “I think the most memorable moment was when we beat Millville at home in the playoffs (in 2014) and we did the confetti poppers. It was a really great moment. And also the Ocean City home game during my junior year. We lost, but we felt like we won. We only lost 5-0, and that year nobody lost to them by that low of a score, so that was a big deal.”
Mackler said she is off to the University of Delaware this fall, but there always will be a place in her heart for Atlantic City High School.
“I loved Atlantic City High School. We’re competitive as a school, and all of our teams have a lot of heart,” Mackler said. “And with that heart, you get that drive to win and compete and it was a really great thing to be a part of, and I’m happy I got the chance to be part of it.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN