April 1, 2020

With PDS Girls’ Hockey Progressing to the End, Ritchie Has Program Headed in Right Direction

ALL IN: Princeton Day School girls’ hockey player Ally Antonacci, left, goes after the puck in a game this winter. Sophomore forward Antonacci joined the program this season and helped PDS go 10-11 and advance to the championship game of the Interscholastic Hockey League of the Mid-Atlantic (WIHLMA) Miran Division playoffs. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

For the Princeton Day School girls’ hockey team, its three match-ups against Rye Country Day School (N.Y.) proved to be a measuring stick of the squad’s progress this winter.

In two regular season meetings, PDS dropped a pair of 2-0 decisions. When the rivals met in the championship game of the Interscholastic Hockey League of the Mid-Atlantic (WIHLMA) Miran Division playoffs in mid-February, the Panthers battled valiantly before falling 2-1.

“I was really proud of the girls and how hard they worked,” said PDS head coach John Ritchie, who guided the Panthers to a 10-11 record in his first season at the helm of the program.

“It definitely shows the improvement from when we played them early in December to the middle of January to the end of the year. We had played Rye twice before and I thought we played them better each time.”

In the playoff game against Rye, PDS gave the Wildcats a hard battle.

“We scored on the power play to get started so we had the lead for a little bit,” recalled Ritchie. “We made two mental mistakes back-to-back when they scored their two goals. It was pretty tight down the stretch.”

Reflecting on the season overall, Ritchie saw progress down the stretch.

“My goal going into the year was that we should be about a .500 team,” said Ritchie.

“Based on my preseason projections, we were right on course. The biggest thing is that I thought a lot of our younger, less experienced players showed a lot of growth and a lot of improvement. We really tried to stress individual skill development during practices. As a result, there were three or four girls who really ended up playing some significant minutes and were able to get some game experience. By the time they are seniors, my goal is that they should be able to have impact on the game so from that standpoint it was a good, valuable year.”

Ritchie was happy to see one of his seniors, co-captain and star defenseman Caroline Haggerty, score the team’s goal in the finale against Rye.

“She is the quintessential captain, she works hard, she was a great leader,” said Ritchie of Haggerty, a multitalented athlete who has committed to attend Middlebury College and play for its field hockey program.

“Sometimes with hard work, she is in the right place at the right time.”

Haggerty’s twin sister, Charlotte, along with Ellie Schofield, gave the Panthers a trio of hardworking seniors.

“Charlotte has a very busy schedule; the biggest thing was that our team was a completely different team when she was able to be there just from an aggressive standpoint,” said Ritchie.

“She is fast, she had good size and she can score. Ellie is very similar to Caroline. I am a traditionalist when it comes to handing the letters out. Knowing that team, I couldn’t imagine one of them not being the captain, which is why Ellie and Caroline both had Cs. Ellie was steady, consistent really good defensive forward. She is going on to play college lacrosse (at Bowdoin College) that is going to be great.”

Looking ahead, Ritchie believes the squad has a great foundation in place.

“We have a really solid core; we have a lot of sophomores,” said Ritchie, whose sophomore players included Elizabeth Thomas, Natalie Celso, Frances Bobbitt, Frances Gallagher, Rebecca Willner, Courtney Richter, and Ally Antonacci.

“That is why I really wanted to stress this year being able to focus on that group because there is not a lot of hockey experience but there are a lot of girls.”

One of those sophomores, Antonacci (10 goals and 10 assists in 2019-20), along with junior Hailey Wexler (11 goals, 5 assists), provided a lot of offensive firepower for the group.

“Hailey and Ally are going to continue to get better. This was a breakout year for Hailey. In the past, she has kind of played in the shadows. I thought she did a really good job of stepping up. She is the ultimate team player, she is not somebody who wants to score a hat trick. As for Ally, I am really happy she decided to play this season. We could have definitely used her two years ago. Her speed is her biggest asset. She just works and works and doesn’t complain.”

The Panthers got very good work this winter from its pair of goalies, junior Jillian Wexler (300 saves, .931 save percentage) and freshman Abby Ashman (150 saves, .931 save percentage).

“I think statistically they were in the top 5 or top 10 in the state in terms of save percentage and total shots saved,” said Ritchie. “We are definitely fortunate to have both of them.”

In taking the helm of the program, Richie felt fortunate to have assistant coaches Jamie Davis, Mika Adams, and Julie DeSimone helping him guide the players.

“It was a very positive year overall for the girls and for our coaching staff; I had a lot of compliments about the staff I was able to put together,” said Ritchie.

“We all enjoyed being there at the rink together and that trickles down. I really do delegate a lot of responsibility to Jamie, Mike, and Julie. Looking forward, our goal is to continue to develop but we are trying to steer the program back to some of its more successful time. The biggest thing is to attract girls to PDS who are good student athletes but that their primary sport is hockey.”

Heading into next winter, Ritchie believes that while things are headed in the right direction there is room for even more growth.

“When I joined the program as an assistant, I didn’t have aspirations to be the head coach,” said Ritchie.

“That being said, when the opportunity presented itself and I thought about the idea of bringing that program to where it was, that was appealing to me. I think we had a really good, successful first year but I also know that there is a lot of work to do.”