Ella Kinloch

Nottingham field hockey coach Jessie Mull says senior Ella Kinloch has grown tremendously as a player over four years. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

While three wins in a season usually won’t send teams into celebration mode, it was a substantial number for the Nottingham field hockey team this year as it was the first time they reached that total since 2016.

And they did it in four fewer games.

Symbolizing that improvement is senior forward Ella Kinloch, whose knowledge of field hockey as a freshman was equal to the Northstars win total that year: zero.

But as Kinloch progressed, so did her team.

“She didn’t know anything,” said third-year head coach Jessie Mull, who was an assistant in 2018. “She had no stick, no goggles. She was just willing to play, like most of my team.”

Kinloch corrected her coach in that she did have a stick, but the rest of Mull’s assessment was accurate.

“I never knew what field hockey was,” Kinloch said. “I never heard about the sport until we had eighth grade orientation. I went up to the table and I thought, ‘Why not, try something new.’ I was a gymnast for eight years, so I said ‘Let’s switch it up.’”

She attended a PAL camp that summer run by former Steinert coach Allyson Setzer, and found the experience “awesome” despite constant misgivings.

“I would get frustrated every day,” Kinloch recalled. “I would go home and say “I want to quit, I don’t want to do this, it’s too hard. Everyone’s better than me.’ But my mom said ‘Just give it a little bit. Keep on practicing, keep doing what you’re doing, keep your head up.’”

Ella also got a nudge from her brother. “You know how brothers can be,” she says, and while she appreciated the support, she knew the fire had to come from within.

“I had to find it in myself to keep going,” she said. “It’s so easy to just say to my family ‘Thanks for the motivation, but I’m done.’ I have done that before so with this it was only a week or two of the camp and I thought I hadn’t been to real high school field hockey yet, I have to give it a shot. I did and some days are better than others.”

Four years later, they have been mostly good days, as Kinloch turned herself into a full-fledged field hockey player. As a senior, the right wing forward led Nottingham in scoring with two goals and two assists. She assisted on the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over West Windsor-Plainsboro North and had a goal in a 2-1 triumph over Pemberton.

“She’s involved,” Mull said. “She’s always there.”

And she has been there for the duration, despite a constant battle with self doubt. Asked if she ever felt like quitting, Kinloch admitted, “I have.”

“But it’s a fleeting moment,” she quickly added. “I’m like ‘I’m sick of this, I’m not good, I’m so tired of this.’ And then the next day I’m like ‘OK, I got this.’ I didn’t want to play this year because I didn’t know how good we’d be and look at us. It’s been awesome.”

The hard-working Mull, who played for Nottingham in the early 2000s when it was a solid program, feels this year has been the best in her nine seasons as an assistant and head coach. Not just because of the wins, but the effort.

“Nottingham is what it is. I’m up against a lot of things,” said the coach with an extremely limited feeder system. “But what I expect from them is to give their best. I know what their best is, and if they’re not giving it to me, that’s what upsets me rather than a loss.”

She got their best for the most part this year, with eight seniors leading the way. One of the main leaders was Kinloch, who served as a tri-captain.

“I think she challenges them and pushes them to do better,” Mull said toward the end of the season. “They look at her as a role model. But she pushes herself. You can see her on the field getting frustrated with herself.

“I’ve been doing a lot of work with her mentally just to keep her in the game. She knows when she can do better and she puts a lot of pressure on herself. She knows where she came from and how much time she’s put into it and she’s developed. Her work ethic is phenomenal.”

She has indeed come a long way, albeit over a lot of hilly roads judging by her ups and downs. Late in Kinloch’s freshman season, she was called up to varsity and started feeling pretty good about herself. But when she entered games, that feeling dissolved.

“I got nervous, very nervous,” she said. “Especially because you don’t want the other girls yelling at you. I was just a little freshman.”

By the end of her ninth-grade season, Kinloch felt she had a grasp on things and was bolstered by the overall experience. But. . .

“Sophomore year, not so much,” she said. “Sophomore year was really rough for me. I’d get taken off the field and I’d throw my head back and throw my arms up. She would call me off and say ‘That’s not what a varsity player does.’ And she’s right. I let the emotion get to me easily. So sophomore year was a roller coaster.”

Still, the coach saw something in Ella that year.

“She was aggressive, and she put the time in,” Mull said. “I knew she could be incredible her junior and senior year.”

Her junior year basically flatlined. Due to Covid-19, apathy crept through the team, and Kinloch endured her second winless season in three years.

“Last year was tough,” she said. “Nobody had any motivation. I remember coming to practice crying a bunch of times because it was only me and a select few other players who were really trying and a bunch of the girls were there just to kind of be there.’”

Considering Nottingham had gone 2-40 in her first three seasons, it’s not surprising Kinloch debated whether to return this year. But Mull was thrilled to have her back, just to witness the finished product.

“She’s improved so much since her freshman year,” the coach said. “She carries the ball well now, she has improved on her dodges. She knows the game mentality, she knows when to pass the ball to other players. She has great skill carrying the ball up the field. She’s just a strong player.”

But she will never forget when she was a weak player, and the fears she had about being chastised by upperclassmen. Putting herself in the young players’ shoes, Kinloch tries to provide positive reinforcement for underclassmen.

Her pet project has been working with sophomore Kara Weaver, whom she took under her wing last year.

“She’s awesome to work with,” Kinloch said. “Our season last year was rough. She was a freshman, there was no JV team so she automatically had to be on varsity. I know she was nervous. She always said she wasn’t good, but she was. I felt like I was her when I was a freshman. I just tell her to keep her head up. It’s all positive.”

Weaver ended up tying Kinloch and senior Emma Agliata for the team lead with two goals this season. Her work with Kinloch was especially gratifying to Mull.

“I see girls come in with nothing,” the coach said. “I have girls that have nothing now, but they are learning from girls that were once at that point. You look at Katie and Ella. It was tough last year but this year they’ve really jelled. Just seeing that progress is definitely gratifying.”

It has certainly been a gratifying four years for Kinloch, not only on the field but in the classroom. She has a 4.04 grade point average and is waiting to hear back about her application to the National Honor Society. She is also a PEER Leader, which makes sense considering her leadership on the field. And she is taking 12 college credits in Mercer County Community College’s Career Prep program, taking courses in Health & Wellness, Intro to Nutrition and Exercise Science.

“I’ve thought about being an athletic trainer,” she said. “I’ve also thought about majoring in nutrition and minoring in business to open my own practice.”

Whatever her future holds, one thing is certain. Kinloch will always look back on her often bumpy field hockey road with gratification. Especially her senior year, in which the Northsars defeated Hopewell for the first time in decades.

“None of us were expecting that,” she said. “I think at the end of the game I kind of turned around and looked at the scoreboard and I was like, ‘We’re doing it.’ It’s been the best year, just the way everybody is playing.

“What I love about everybody is even if we lose, after the game, we’re upset with ourselves and then we play the next game like nothing ever happened, like we didn’t just lose. So I’m proud of that. Last year was like ‘Well it’s gonna be another loss.’ You knew what was coming. This year I’m excited to practice, I’m excited when we have a game the next day.”

It was the kind of excitement she never dreamed possible when approaching that field hockey table in eighth grade.

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