ORONO – Stephanie Gardiner and Kelly Newton have played field hockey together since eighth grade.
They decided to travel more than 3,000 miles to remain teammates and it is paying dividends for the University of Maine field hockey team.
The freshman forwards from Vancouver, British Columbia, have been named America East Rookie of the Week five times between them this season and they are leading the Black Bears in scoring.
Newton, a two-time rookie of the week, has eight goals and seven assists for 23 points in 15 games while Gardiner, three-time rookie of the week, has eight goals and five assists for 21 points in 16 games.
Behind the two freshmen, Maine has earned the third seed for the America East Tournament in Albany on Friday and Saturday. The Bears failed to make the tourney last year.
“They’ve been phenomenal,” said Maine coach Josette Babineau. “Kelly is more of a finesse player. She’s a distributor, a playmaker. But she is also capable of scoring goals. She gets a lot of chances. She plays in the middle of the field, center forward, and she’ll use her wings to advance the ball.
“Stephanie is a shooter. She has a very quick release. She really looks to take her shots. She’s physically strong, too. She’s taller than Kelly and is more imposing in the circle,” added Babineau.
Gardiner stands 5-foot-7 while Newton is 5-5.
Their familiarity is noticeable on the field.
“They know where each other is on the field at all times,” said freshman goalie Brittany Fleck, who played with them at The Crofton House School. “They have a really good way about judging where to put the ball in anticipating where the other one is going to be.”
“We’ve played together so long, I definitely know where she’s going to be and I can sometimes read her mind,” said Newton. “I’ll know what she wants.”
“It’s really helpful. Sometimes when I’m up the field, I’ll just kind of know where Kelly is and pass it there [without looking] and she’ll be there,” said Gardiner.
Their decision to come to Maine was impacted by their friendship and desire to play together. They even visited the school together.
“It was a big bonus. I don’t know if I would have come if I didn’t already know somebody coming here. When we visited, we liked everyone we met but it was definitely a big deal to have my best friend go with me,” said Newton.
“And to have Brittany come as well is such a lucky thing to happen to us,” said Gardiner.
They have adapted to Division I field hockey, which is more physical than they are used to in their native Canada.
They have also adjusted to small-town living, moving from a city of approximately 600,000 to one with around 10,000.
“I do miss the city and the mountains, but since it’s such a small town, everyone is really nice and really friendly. Walking around campus, everyone holds the door open for you. It’s a nice atmosphere. I like the atmosphere a lot,” said Newton.
“It’s so pretty…. the nature and the surroundings. We’ve never really experienced a real fall, with the leaves changing,” said Gardiner.
They have been pleasantly surprised by the numbers they have racked up and are excited with the team’s regular-season finish, in which they won their last three league games to qualify for the tournament.
“Lately, I’ve been really impressed [with how the team has played]. It’s been great to see the whole team step up. It’s been a whole team effort. Everyone has put in 100 percent to get those W’s,” said Gardiner.
“We’re peaking at the right time,” added Newton.
Verrier commits to UM baseball
Matt Verrier, a catcher for Oxford Hills High School in South Paris, has verbally committed to attend UMaine on a baseball scholarship in 2010.
The junior from Norway, who has attended UMaine baseball camps, wanted to be part of the program.
“I’m a Maine kid and UMaine is the school where I’ve wanted to play for quite a while now,” Verrier said. “It was the perfect fit for me.”
UMaine coach Steve Trimper is prohibited by NCAA rules from commenting on Verrier until the school receives a signed National Letter of Intent next fall.
Verrier is a already two-time Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference first-team all-star for coach Shane Slicer at Oxford Hills. He has played for former UMaine catcher Nick Caiazzo on the Portland-based Frozen Ropes college prep team.
“I think that’s my No. 1 strength, I can hit,” Verrier said. “My catching, I work real hard on it. I credit all my coaches for my progression over the years.”
Verrier felt comfortable enough with Trimper and the UMaine coaching staff that he wanted to commit early.
“He’s [Trimper] a good guy,” Verrier said. “He and [Aaron] Izaryk and [Jared] Holowaty, they all played a major role.”
Verrier, who had been watched by schools such as St. John’s, Virginia and Connecticut, is proud to represent Oxford Hills, which has produced a handful of pro prospects in recent years, including Garrett Olson, a fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Twins in 2004.
“Oxford Hills is a baseball town and it’s been that way for a while now,” said Verrier, who also plays basketball for the Vikings.