CONCORD — As May turned to June, Hailey Valerio enjoyed a front-row seat for Garnet Valley's run to the PIAA girls lacrosse championship.
A sport she had played until last year before focusing her efforts on field hockey, Hailey watched as sisters Taylor and Madison — and numerous other friends and former teammates — played key roles in the Jaguars' run to a state title. (Madison's contributions included a goal in the 13-9 win in the final against Springfield.)
Witnessing the excitement that team stirred up only built the anticipation for Hailey Valerio through the summer, counting the days until the open of the field hockey season.
"It definitely helps me for field hockey," Valerio said Monday, "because we want that for us, too."
One of Delco's top teams from last year, the Jaguars opened camp Monday on the first day of practice for PIAA sports with a focused but festive atmosphere. There is work to be done to build on a successful 2013 season, goes the consensus, but the hopes are high that they Jaguars have the players to take that next step.
That starts with a 15-strong senior core, led by the likes of the Valerios (all three of the triplets play field hockey), including Hailey the goalie, a recent Dartmouth commit. They have been champing at the bit to get out there and prove themselves.
Though Monday is the first official practice of the fall, a large portion of that senior group and other returnees have been working out together through the summer, meeting up at the high school many evenings to stay in shape and make sure they hit the ground running once practice opens.
It's the kind of effort and dedication that is needed for a group that feels it has something to prove as it seeks to improve upon last season's success. Last fall, the Jaguars came within a goal of a Central League title, falling to Conestoga, and earned a trip to the second round of the District One tournament thanks to a first-round win over Avon Grove.
The start of organized team practices Monday, then, wasn't so much a beginning as the objective looming in the distance through weeks of hard work under the summer sun.
"I was waiting all summer to start the preseason just to show everyone that we can still be as good a team as we were as last year, since we lost all our seniors," All-Delco midfielder Jessika Daniels said. "I want to prove to people that we can be just as good as we were last year. ... I think everyone's head is in a good place."
Replacing last year's departures will be a tough task. The likes of Katie Keyser, Molly Savage, Shivani Chinnappan and Dana Davis were major contributors, and the attack will be mostly rebuilt for this season.
But there's a strong foundation returning to build on, and the seniors are ready to do what it takes to bring along a group of talented underclassmen to fill in the gaps. Helping that process along is the fact that there's already a strong bond in place, one in which the younger players can easily benefit from the knowledge of their veteran mates.
"I think it's a good feeling," said defender Alison Amen, a second-team All-Delco last year. "We're all good friends, so I think that will help us. I think we have a lot of chemistry, too. There's a lot of groups, but we can come together and play as one team, so I think that will help us."
"I just think we need to focus on everything we did last year and make it better for this year," Hailey Valerio said. "... I think we need to step up and be leaders on the field, especially for those newcomers. We did lose a lot of our forwards, so there will be some new forwards and we just need to build that positive motivation and give everyone our knowledge."
Beyond the girls lacrosse triumph of last spring, the veterans of the Garnet Valley field hockey team have witnessed — and been a part of — some very successful recent seasons for Garnet Valley girls across a variety of sports.
Carving out a place in that history for this year's squad was squarely in the minds of many Monday.
"It's definitely challenging. There's a lot of good things," Valerio said. "But if we work hard this year, we'll get our own spot."