Hala Silverstein, Opal Sparling, and Jen Weissbach look back at The Hill School’s first Pa. Independent Schools state championship title

The Hill School field hockey team forged a bond amongst teammates and family that led them to the finale in 2022.

Only a few years ago, athletes at The Hill School watched their sport seasons vanish in an instant.

The boarding school canceled athletic events in 2020 to try to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. For several of The Hill School’s field hockey players and coach, winning the 2022 Pa. Independent Schools Athletic Association championship became known as “redemption.”

“Yes, COVID was a struggle, and it was upsetting to see a lot of my club season ripped away,” said Class of 2023 graduate Hala Silverstein. “But some of the girls on the team, they would say Hill wasn’t allowed to participate in the fall of 2020. It’s a boarding school. It was a lot of risk. So, to endure that and then win the championship, it meant a lot.”

Silverstein, one of the Hill’s captains last Fall, is a freshman at the University of Michigan. She played a pivotal role defending the cage in the school’s unprecedented season.

“It was my senior year,” the Division I goalkeeper said. “From the beginning, though, our roster just had a lot of talent on it. This was my second year with the program. So, coming in with a group of girls who have played some club together, some more than others, and like, working with a lot of new faces, it was cool to get to know each other. It all began in the preseason because we lived together in a dorm for a week. It really allows you to get to know everyone on a different level. I think for me, like, that was just the beginning of a foundation of trust and friendship that we were able to utilize throughout the season; it allowed us to get through hard moments, a hard practice, or stick it out in a tough game. Like in our one loss in the season when we had to recover from that. That foundation really allowed us to trek through.”

Opal Sparling, a rising sophomore at Hill, scored the winning goal for her team. She said a standout moment for her last season was when they took a team trip to Michigan.

“It was the first time we ever really spent time together,” Sparling said. “It was my first time really meeting everyone on the team. I really got connected to a lot of the players that I hadn’t known before. It was a really nice experience to travel all together. My roommates were really welcoming to me.”

Prior to attending Hill, Silverstein said she attended public school. She wanted to go to Hill because it offered “such intense high school field hockey.”

She isn’t alone. The Hill’s 2022 roster fielded 23 players. More than half were seniors, and several of them were like Silverstein, and coming in from other states.

Last year’s squad was from Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Delaware, Ohio, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey. Silverstein is originally from Glenwood, Maryland. Sparling is from Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.

“It’s not like we had one person on the team who was really left out of anything,” Silverstein recalled. “That was one of our strengths. One of our mottos was Hill field hockey family. It’s what we cheered before every game. We repeated ‘hfhf.’ We really stuck to that core value. And, we spoke a lot about what it means to be a team. Because we had the skill from the beginning. Pennsylvania, just like, this area, there’s really, just a lot of concentrated talent. That was a given. It was getting into a flow and trusting each other.”

The Pottstown-based school finished its 2022 season 20-1-0. MAX Field Hockey, a stats-based website, ranked them No. 2 in the nation, as well as No. 1 in Pennsylvania. The Hill School was also last year’s Mid-Atlantic Prep League champs.

“It was a goal of ours,” former Hill head coach Jen Weissbach said. “It has been for many seasons at this point. Our goal was certainly centered around what we could do at the national level. We were incredibly proud of our culture; working hard for each other. We all committed to a singular goal as a team. I’m proud of winning the state and league championships. It was just an incredible season statistically. But, I’m equally proud of how we did it together. I think that’s what makes me most proud.”

After nine seasons working at the Hill, Weissbach is now the dean of students at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. She will continue to coach field hockey. 

Her recent Hill teams have put all their heart into trying to claim a state championship, she said. Watching her 12 seniors win it after the program came narrowly close two years prior, it was exceptionally rewarding, she said.

“We won the MAPL four years in a row,” she said. “That’s something that we expect to win. Our league is tough, but we had set our goal particularly on winning a state championship since we came close the previous two years. It’s nice that we got it done this year. Third time and we actually won with less than a minute.”

The final score in the 2022 PAISAA championship favored Hill 3-2. Flip the score and then you have the year before, in which, Episcopal Academy defeated Hill 3-2. In 2020, the season was canceled, and then in 2019, Hill lost by one in its first state championship appearance.

“We’ve thrown around the word ‘redemption’ a few times this season,” Weissbach said, who spent the past six years as the head coach. She started as an assistant coach and held that position for three years before becoming head coach.

“I think it’d be remised not to say that the senior class that got their season cancelled – we would have won it that year,” Weissbach said. “That senior class was loaded with talent. They had been with me for four years. While certainly it was tough for the program, there was a sense of loss and just kind of questions of what could have been. And, I think about that sometimes for that group of girls.”

When she coached at The Hill, Weissbach said she didn’t “define success by what the scoreboard reads.”

“Because I lean into that with every single thing I do,” she said. “When the games were stripped away from us, we continued to do what we were there to do. Learn how to work hard, be bigger than, build leadership and relationships, find fulfillment in being together every day although we couldn’t compete. Those few days after the season was cancelled, those were the toughest moments to work through as a coach. It helps you with how you define success; both statistically, and factually. I’m very proud that last year we did it together and we did it the right way. You don’t want to win with people who don’t care about each other.”


The Game

The Hill School was down by one in the first quarter.

“We weren’t playing like ourselves,” Weissbach said. “We were playing a bit slow. We started three freshman, who had never played in a game like that. It was a big moment. We had to get our feet underneath ourselves.”

The game was tied 1-1 at halftime. Then it was netted up again at 2-2.

“There were five minutes left in the game,” Weissbach said. “They called a timeout. There was a sense of calm in our huddle. We all kind of looked at each other and the message was, just five minutes left. This is the state championship. These are the moments that you live for.”

With about two minutes remaining in regulation, Weisbach said she was telling herself to mentally prepare for overtime. She was going to her bench to grab her board to draw up her lineup, when Hill got a corner call, she said. There was about 50 seconds remaining.

“My assistant said, ‘what are you going to call,’” Weissbach said. “I’ve been a head basketball coach for eight years. I kind of switched into that head space with less than a minute in the game. I thought this was one chance. And, I should pick the best player to make it happen. Opal Sparling, a freshman, she’d stepped up for us time and time again all season. I made the call, and it was just a straight shot; no one had a chance. It was a rocket. It was a special moment.”

The memory still seems surreal to Sparling.

“My coach called for me to shoot the shot,” she said. “And, I guess, that’s what happened. I really don’t remember much. It really was just such an adrenaline rush with everything.”

“She’s so humble,” Silverstein said. “They’ll be great this year. There’s a lot of humble young talent at The Hill.”

The team ended the game strategically hyper-focused on not making any mistakes in the final countdown, Weissbach said.  

“I think it’s that we intentionally challenged ourselves throughout the season,” Weissbach said. “Different people had to step up in different moments. It was at one point our seniors. Another time our freshman, and then sophomores and juniors. We played one of the toughest schedules in the country. We played the best teams in Connecticut and New Jersey. We played the best teams in Pennsylvania. When you intentionally build challenging schedules, you offer so many opportunities for people to step up.”

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