Neshaminy won its second consecutive SOL National Conference title this season. The Redskins suffered a tremendous loss when assistant coach Janet Dougherty passed away in her sleep late on Sept. 28.
What would Doc do?
It’s a simple enough question but one that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to anyone except members of the Neshaminy field hockey team, who regularly ask themselves that question.
It’s not uncommon for coach Jamie Pinto to find her players repeating instructions – ‘Doc-isms’ – that were pet phrases of assistant coach Janet Dougherty.
“Shoot from the top” “Go left” “Get your feet around.” To name just a few.
One day, Janet Dougherty was doing jumping jacks and running airplanes with the players, celebrating the Redskins’ 3-2 win over Council Rock South the preceding day that clinched sole possession of the program’s second consecutive SOL National Conference title.
The next day Dougherty was gone. The beloved longtime assistant – also a respected business teacher at Neshaminy - passed away suddenly in her sleep on Saturday, Sept. 28.
“I feel like when it happened it was more an unreal type of thing – this isn’t really happening,” senior Asia Barnard said.
But the unimaginable had happened, and the Redskins were left with a whole lot of questions and no answers. It could have marked the beginning of the end for the team. After all, how do you pick up the pieces and go on?
“When we all came to the realization that it was for real – as upset as we were, we couldn’t stop the whole thing,” Barnard said. “She would have hated if we had postponed everything for her.
“Everything we did – it was the little things like going to the corner, picking up balls, doing everything fast – she was right there. She was just always positive energy whether it was on the field or passing her in the hallway.”
“She would always help you,” senior Brooke Cordisco said. “If you were struggling on the field, she would be the one to pull you aside and say, ‘You got this, don’t give up.’ She always had that positive attitude towards everything in practice and out on the field.”
“If we had a big game that day, you would pass her in school, and she would always encourage you,” senior Jamie Pennington said. “If we had a big win the previous day, if she saw you in school, she’d be like, ‘You guys played great yesterday.’
“She would always be the first to tell you how great you were doing, she would also be the first to tell you – ‘You need to get it together.’ It was very balanced.”
“It was always in a positive way – she was never putting you down,” Cordisco said. “She was one of my business teachers this year. Probably 10 minutes of the class would be her talking to me about field hockey.
“I remember the last thing she said to me – we had played CR South the day before, and she said, ‘Brooke, you played great on Thursday.’”
Coach Jamie Pinto – who first met Dougherty as a player - remembers wondering just how the team would move on. The Tuesday after Dougherty’s passing was a holiday with no school, and the Redskins’ coach and her players met with the school’s guidance counselor.
“Everybody was really upset, they didn’t know what to expect,” Pinto said. “They just started talking, and it ended up being an hour-and-a-half of the girls talking about their coach Doc memories. There was like a million. I have them from coaching, I have them from playing.
“Her tie-dyed shirt she wore from 2000. It’s just the coach Doc memories you have that are great. Because she was such a great person, you could just keep talking about her forever. The things the girls picked up on – it was just neat to hear what they thought of her. Some things I never would have even thought of myself, but it was the things they picked up on that they just loved about her.”
There were difficult days for the team, but the players pulled together with Cordisco, Pennington, Barnard and Peyton Ritchey leading the way.
“They’ve been great,” Pinto said. “They took the underclassmen out to lunch, they went for walks in the park with whoever thought they needed it.
“I was sitting behind Asia at the viewing, and she had two underclassmen on either side of her, and her arms were around them, supporting them the whole time. It broke my heart.
“The way they have handled it – the part that amazes me was we as coaches didn’t tell them to do these things. They just did it on their own. They wanted to do coach Doc t-shirts, and the design was theirs. The brick for our wall they made was their thought, their design.
“We talked to them at one practice – I don’t know what we said honestly. It wasn’t like, ‘You need to be there for each other.’ We were just talking about life itself and trying to get back in the swing of things. We never specifically said, ‘Girls, you need to do this to help us.’ They just did it, and they did a great job.”
Listening to the players tell it the loss of coach Doc only reinforced what was already a strong bond.
“We were all very close to begin with, but we have this insanely close bond now,” Pennington said.
“I feel like we’re pushing ourselves harder for her,” Ritchey said. “Everything we do, every touch on the field, we do for her.”
“I feel like a lot of people think we might want to sulk because of what happened,” Cordisco said. “But I think it only makes us want to achieve more.
“It’s made us stronger. I feel like we want to keep going. We don’t ever want to stop because we don’t ever want to leave the people we went through this with.”
“I don’t know if it’s the bond we had before,” Barnard said. “But I feel the way we handled it is a lot different from the way other teams might have. We’ve always been like sisters all four years.
“When you lose someone that held it all together, you’d think it would be like – what do we do now? But we just used that, and it brought us together.”
Pinto has been both amazed and inspired by her team’s resiliency.
“Seeing them now, you would never know that some of them are still struggling with it,” the Redskins coach said. “When they’re here, they’re laughing and having fun. That’s what coach Doc would want. That’s what she brought.
“She coached here when I played. What they’re saying about her is true – she was always the voice of reason. She was always that positive personality. When we’re on the girls, sometimes we would send Janet over, and I’m sure she would get the point across in a really nice manner. You just respected her. There were times we laughed at her and with her, but she was just a great presence to have around.”
The not-so-little matter of the postseason begins Wednesday when the Redskins will host Council Rock South in a second round game. For the seniors, there’s a sense of urgency that wasn’t there in years past.
“As an underclassman, you know – I have X amount of years left,” Pennington said. “Now you realize it’s your last high school postseason ever, which is crazy to think about. I think it motivates us a lot more to step up and lead as much as we can through the postseason and get farther than we have in the previous years.”
“I feel like it’s more special,” Ritchey said. “It means more now than it did before.”
“I feel like it’s one of those things before, like Jamie said, ‘I know I have another year,’” Barnard added. “But this year it’s like you never know when your last game is going to be and when it is, it’s your last game here. It’s over after that. There’s no coming back to Neshaminy field hockey after this. It pushes you to make you want to stay here a lot longer.”
“You don’t appreciate it as much as you do this year because this is the last time ever playing on this team,” Cordisco said. “It is bittersweet, but it motivates us to perform better and try to go as far as we can because we don’t want to stop.”
Last year, the Redskins saw their season end with a second round loss at Souderton.
“It’s happened every year since my freshman year,” Ritchey said of the Redskins’ second-round exits. “Last year we played our hearts out and we still didn’t get what we wanted. I was sad because my best friends were seniors that year, and I was never going to play with them again.”
This year, the Redskins will host a second round game – something this group has never done before. They are not ready to see the season end.
“You can’t be prepared for that because you’re not preparing to lose,” Pennington said. “You’re preparing to keep winning and going on.”
Whatever happens in the postseason, coach Doc will be an important part of it.
“I think her passing makes us realize we can’t take anything for granted,” Cordisco said. “We need to live every moment of our life to the fullest – the way she did. She was such a happy woman. I think that’s one of my goals – I want to live that happy.”
“In a way, it kind of resembles playoffs,” Barnard said of Dougherty’s passing. “We didn’t know that was going to be our last day with Doc. Nobody thought of that. It just happened that way.
“The same with playoffs – we never know when our season is going to be over, when it’s going to end. We have to play every game like it’s going to end right there.”
When they take the field on Wednesday, their sticks will include reminders of coach Doc. There’s the ‘Doc’ sticker from senior Maddie Tiemann’s mother, and the ‘Coach Doc strong’ stickers, a gift from Pennsbury field hockey.
“The other teams we’ve played have been so kind to us,” Pennington said.
On Wednesday, the Redskins will be playing on their home field where – at the top of their wall – is a brick with the words ‘Coach Doc, forever in our hearts.’ The other side, which is signed by all the players, says ‘Stronger together.’ The Redskins are strong, Coach Doc Strong.