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Who to watch

Teams

Westfield: Just when you thought they were done with the graduation of star midfielder Meghan Winesett, the Bulldogs return enough talent to keep them at the top of the region for another year.

South County: It will be interesting to see how the perennial region contenders adjust to their new coach, Nina Pannoni, daughter of the school’s football coach, Gerry Pannoni. Either way, the Stallions have the talent to make some noise this fall.

McLean: Coach Summer Vanni should have the Highlanders ready to rebound from last year’s disappointing 9-10-1 season.

Players

Emily Freeman, Fairfax: The Rebels’ top goal-scorer should give plenty of defenses headaches this year.

Rachael Ulsh, Westfield: The UVa-bound defender is one of the area’s best and will anchor a strong back line for the Bulldogs this fall.

Sofia Palacios, Herndon: One of the area’s leading scorers as a sophomore last year, Palacios is ready to make up for the regional game she missed last year with a concussion.

As a sophomore last fall, Herndon midfielder Taylor Stone thrived on her connection with Sofia Palacios, whose goal-scoring prowess and passing ability from the forward position complemented her teammate’s craftiness to help produce standout seasons for both players. Palacios is back for her junior season with the Hornets this fall, but Stone might benefit from an even stronger connection with the arrival of the team’s lone freshman this year.

Herndon’s newcomer is none other than Sammy Stone, Taylor’s not-so-little sister (Sammy has a few inches on her). Sammy has used her strong work ethic to adapt well to the varsity field hockey squad in preseason practices, where she’s been playing up top and combining with her sister.

“There’s a good sister dynamic when we’re out there,” Taylor said. “I can sense where she is. It’s kind of that thing that you just develop.”

Taylor and Sammy joined the same house league in elementary school and soon made the switch to Rampage, the area’s top indoor field hockey club. Sammy played on the Rampage U14 team this past year but got her first taste of competing alongside her sister when she participated on Taylor’s U16 team at a tournament this year. She’s been eager to join her sister on the high school stage ever since.

“She’s jumped right in in terms of skill and ability and knowledge of the game,” said Mary Miller, who enters her second year as head coach at Herndon. “She can play. And I think it’s an advantage having an older sister, because she’s already friends with some of the kids that are already on the team as well. She’s the only freshman, but it doesn’t really seem like it.”

It’s been awhile since Taylor put on a Herndon uniform, but she won’t show up rusty this fall. The 16-year-old was the youngest field hockey player to represent the USA at the Maccabiah Games this summer in Israel, teaming up mostly with players who compete at the college level or beyond. Participating in the world’s third largest sporting competition, behind the Olympics and the Pan Am Games, she helped the squad capture the bronze medal on the heels of a 2-1-1 mark during the week-long tournament.

Taylor also made the U17 National Team and will attend a training camp in January to determine the final roster bound for an international tour next year. On top of that, she played in the Junior Olympics at the University of Michigan this summer alongside Palacios. The teammates, who also play on the same U16 team for Rampage, were among four players from Fairfax County selected to join the U16 Olympic team.

Taylor and Palacios hope to translate their recent experiences into a banner year for their high school squad at Herndon. The Hornets’ 13-7 record last season — which included five losses by a one-goal margin — marked the program’s first winning record in years. With most of their production from that unit returning, Herndon’s players believe they’re poised to advance beyond the second round of regionals, where they lost to Fairfax 1-0 in part because Palacios was absent with a concussion. Going deeper than they did last year would present uncharted territory for a program that has long played second fiddle to Concorde District powers like Westfield and Oakton.

Team captains Anne Kelley and Katherine Wilson — both senior defenders — have been working to boost camaraderie with team dinners, sleepovers and possibly a 5K this fall. They say the team has been working harder than ever this offseason but want to stress that high school sports don’t necessarily revolve around winning.

“As far as leadership, I think a good expectation is we’re going to work hard, but we’re also going to have fun,” Kelley said. “This is a high school sport — it doesn’t have to be super intense all the time. But I feel like we’re going to go far, and it’s going to be a good season.”

Miller said she believes her team’s success hinges on how her small core of year-round players jells with the girls who stay in shape with other sports like lacrosse and soccer during the spring. The combination seems to be working nicely so far, largely because everyone shares the same work ethic and drive.

Sammy Stone wasn’t sure how things would go when she first joined the fray, but she quickly learned her dedication to improving would make her an easy fit.

“I didn’t really know how it would be, but I love everybody on the team,” Sammy said. “I think everyone here is prepared to work really hard and have a good season.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com