Kelly Benik stands at the top of the circle during a recent Meade field hockey practice, leaning to one side on her stick, looking relaxed. There is a break in the action as a coach shouts instructions, but those breaks will be few and far between this season for the senior All-Extra attack, now in her fourth year on the team.
Instead, the pressure on Benik will be intensified. That's the way it is when you score 18 goals for a squad that upset the defending state champion, Broadneck, in the playoffs last November; when you score both goals in a playoff victory to open some eyes among Anne Arundel County opponents; when you score two more goals in a victory days later to earn your school's first berth in a region final.
Meade won 11 games last season and lost only four, and Benik wants the Mustangs to go at least one step farther in the postseason this fall: in other words, the state tournament.
"We're definitely working a lot harder to do better. It was a big fluke to have the boys on the team [last year], and we want to prove we can go further [without them]," said Benik, referring to Josh and Jarrod Davis, who made headlines last fall by competing in the traditionally all-girls' sport. Josh graduated in June, and Jarrod, a sophomore, is not on the team this season.
"It's very important for us to go to states. The freshman class that I started with has progressed . . . and this year we want to go all the way."
With defenses sure to key on the 5-foot-11-inch Benik and her polished offensive skills, the Mustangs will need offensive stalwarts Brittany Stein and Allison Carter to step up and complement her. But fifth-year coach Carrie Vosburg acknowledges that when Benik wants to take over, she pretty much can.
"She is capable of taking the ball from one end of the field to another, past 12 people," said Vosburg. "She has beautiful stickwork and she has speed, too. The word that best describes her [on the field] is 'poised.' "
Benik will for the fourth season also be the hitter, or striker as it is termed, on penalty corners: the player who receives the pass from the end line and fires hard on goal. She has an extremely powerful shot, and that coheres with Vosburg's philosophy.
"Every corner should be a goal," said the coach with a smile. "Kelly's able to get the shot off without getting flustered."
Benik was probably a little flustered three years ago when she showed up for preseason practice: It was the first time she had ever picked up a hockey stick.
"I wanted to try something new," said Benik. "My thought then was, 'This is harder than it looks.' "
Since then, she's learned a thing or two about the game -- her self-described best skill is "dodging around people" -- most notably from Vosburg, whom Benik calls her biggest influence in the sport. Vosburg "pushes us hard, and she's a very, very good player," she said.
Benik is not a "year-round" player -- she didn't participate in a winter indoor or spring outdoor league this past offseason -- but she did hone her skills in the Anne Arundel Women's League this summer and hopes that continued solid play might land her a scholarship.
"I really want to go to college and play field hockey," said Benik, mentioning UMBC and Salisbury as possible destinations next fall.
Note: Anne Arundel County's athletic administration has amended its squad membership guidelines to state that volleyball and field hockey are "for females only," meaning Jarrod Davis is ineligible to play this fall. Some opponents, including Howard and Arundel, refused to play Meade last season because the squad included Jarrod and brother Josh. Vosburg said one of the key factors in the decision was that "it was a safety issue for a lot of people." The revised rule, however, still allows females to try out for high school football and wrestling teams.