Action from Wednesday’s field hockey practice at Roy C. Ketcham High School.
Athletes often will describe the charming scenery and the warmth of a familial atmosphere in explaining their college choice.
There are the familiar lines: “I just fell in love with the campus …” or, “The athletic department made me feel right at home.”
There was none of that for Violeta Francese.
During recruitment trips this summer, she didn’t receive formal campus tours and wasn’t even permitted to enter the buildings, nor did she meet any of her potential teammates.
“It’s hard to get a picture of where I’m gonna be the next four years,” the Roy C. Ketcham High School junior said while chuckling. “But I know it’s a great school and I know their reputation.”
From right, Ketcham’s Violeta Francese (6) drives to the goal in front of Mahopac’s April Heady (18) during girls field hockey playoff action at Mahopac High School Oct. 23, 2019. Ketcham won the game4-3. (Photo: Frank Becerra Jr./Poughkeepsie Journal)
Few things still are normal during the COVID-19 pandemic, and her routine for offseason training and recruitment were reworked twice over, given all the risks and restrictions.
But the selling point in her giving a verbal commitment last week to play field hockey at the University Connecticut essentially was this: Umm … It’s UConn field hockey.
The sight-unseen approach to a choosing a school, for her, is somewhat mitigated by the fact she has long dreamt of competing for a Division I powerhouse.
Connecticut certainly is that, having dominated the Big East conference for two decades and winning five national championships, most recently in 2017. The Huskies also have helped produce two Olympians from New York in Long Island’s Tracey Fuchs and former Lakeland star Melissa Gonzalez.
“It’s wonderful,” said Ketcham coach Abby Seward, who added that a few of Francese’s teammates soon could be announcing commitments. “It’s definitely exiting for our team and the community.”
Field hockey still is in the developmental stages in Dutchess County. It isn’t offered in all the schools and there are few prominent programs here. So it’s not often this area turns out a top prospect in that sport, let alone one who draws the interest of an NCAA juggernaut.
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Francese is a diamond in the rough, a local kid who has shined for a Connecticut-based travel team and who has made a name in some regional circles as a member of the Team USA Futures program.
From right, Ketcham’s Violeta Francese (6) celebrates a goal against Mahopac with teammates during girls field hockey playoff action at Mahopac High School Oct. 23, 2019. Ketcham won the game4-3. (Photo: Frank Becerra Jr./Poughkeepsie Journal)
“It’s special and it’s something I’ve been waiting on for a while,” Francese said. “But it hasn’t sunken in that this is really happening.”
In many ways, teammates and coaches said, she never quite has allowed to sink in the reasons why this is really happening.
The ‘total package’
Francese first became interested in field hockey as a second-grader, when her cousin played for Colgate. She didn’t yet understand the sport – after all, learning its many nuances and the reasons for blown whistles does take time – but at that age she simply was enthralled by her cousin being so good at something a college would want her to do that thing for them.
That inspired Francese to start attending clinics in Wappingers Falls hosted by Erin Mulligan, a former SUNY Cortland player who then was the Ketcham coach.
“She told me I was really good, and I should play up against fourth- and fifth-graders,” Francese said of Mulligan. “When I got to fifth grade, she told me I should find a club team.”
Francese’s uncle helped get her connected with AGH Field Hockey in Wilton, Connecticut. As she progressed there, continuing to show talent and developing advanced skills, she became a standout scholastically.
She burst onto the scene at Ketcham as an eighth-grader and immediately turned heads. Mulligan described her back then as “the total package.” The following summer she competed in national tournaments through Futures, USA Field Hockey’s youth development program and its de facto pipeline to the Olympic team.
Last season, after leading Ketcham to a second straight league title, the midfielder was named the Journal’s Player of the Year and earned All-Elite honors from Section 1.
Francese, the Franchise
With quickness and deft stick skills, Francese excels as a ball-handler and frequently beats defenders atop the circle to penetrate and set up teammates. She runs the offense somewhat like a point guard, surveying the field to find favorable matchups, and whips passes to the post.
“I think passing is the strength of my game,” said Francese, who had 11 goals and eight assists as a sophomore. “I try my best to put the ball right where (teammates) can put it in.”
Her abilities as a scorer, with a deep repertoire of shots from all angles, actually helps in facilitating. Because she so often is the focus of opposing defenses, teammates can more easily work themselves open to receive passes in scoring position.
Francese insists she isn’t the center of attention to opponents, but just another of several good players on her roster.
Her coach disagreed a bit.
“She doesn’t think it, but opposing teams absolutely know, ‘We have to get Violeta,’ ” Seward said. “She’ll be man marked or double teamed. They’re all flooding her, so she gets the ball out. She might not realize she’s doing it, but her dribbling and skillset get the defensive attention, and she embraces the role as playmaker.”
Francese stands out in practice. The reverse sweeps, chip shots and air dribbling skills catch the eye – in addition to the bright red shoes.
She looks the part of the superstar but she still is humble.
“She’s very competitive, which makes us have to work harder,” midfielder Mia Dowd said. “She knows how to pull you aside and give (constructive) criticism, but she’s nice about it.”
Francese’s pass-first style also is conducive to promoting unselfish play, and there is a good rapport among the forwards and midfielders.
Ketcham has a talented core that has been together for years. The group includes Dowd, Abby Froelich, Megan Fitzsimmons, Kaylie Mordecki, Lexi Barlanti, Molly Gaklik and defender Ava Gambichler.
There are the natural challenges that will come with competing this fall season amid the ongoing battle against the coronavirus. There are daily temperature checks and symptom screening, and a COVID-19 questionnaire the Wappingers Central School District requires athletes to complete. There also is the discomfort and awkwardness of playing this sport while wearing a mask and protective goggles.
“It’s hard to look down at the ball with it on,” Francese said. “But it’s something we’ll get used to after a while.”
The other, expected, challenges will come from a reshaped division that now includes Horace Greeley, Ossining and Fox Lane, adding to the difficulty of completing a league title three-peat.
“The goal is to do it again and be better,” Francese said. “It’s gonna be more challenging and we haven’t seen some of these teams before, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be confident.”
Hmm. A similar approach to her college selection.
Stephen Haynes: [email protected]; 845-437-4826; Twitter: @StephenHaynes4