Coming prepared to play

Fast learners: With field hockey players flocking to camps and club teams, high school squads are more experienced than ever.

High School Sports

Fall Preview

Field Hockey

September 04, 2001|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

Severna Park coach Lil Shelton remembers how the first day of practice used to be for her freshmen field hockey players.

"I would be saying, `This is the stick and this is the ball. You can only hit the ball with [the flat] side of the stick.' When I started, that's what I did every Aug. 15."

Nowdays, Shelton's instruction doesn't have to be so elementary.

Freshmen flock to the first Falcons practice - and to other public school programs around the state - with stick skills and game experience. They are learning more and learning it sooner in the youth programs, club teams, indoor leagues and summer camps that have sprung up all over the place.

No one understands that better than Shelton, in her 27th season at Severna Park. In 1987, she helped found a junior league program that continues to feed the Falcons as well as other teams in Anne Arundel County and beyond.

The results at Severna Park have been astounding - 13 state Class 4A titles, including eight of the last nine. The No. 1 Falcons have been the only local public school team to consistently compete on an even keel with private schools, where girls start playing field hockey in sixth grade.

At Towson, sixth-year coach Holly West sees improvements as players take advantage of indoor and summer leagues. In June, the Generals landed more players than any other program on Team Maryland.

Emily Kolarik, Jocelyn Paul, Lucy Poole, Maggie Dolan and alternate Whitney Mershon were chosen to compete at the United States Field Hockey Association's annual festival Thanksgiving weekend. Three Severna Park players also made the team - Emily Swartz, Michelle Swartz and Christine West.

High school girls have had opportunities to play field hockey outside of school for at least 15 years, when Fallston coach Alice Puckett and Bel Air coach Phyllis Hemmes started a summer league in Harford County.

An indoor league in Hampstead and a reduced-player league at Roland Park have been running for eight to 10 years. The Hurricanes Club in Howard County is in its fifth year.

These programs have paid off for the coaches who helped found them - notably Fallston, with eight state titles, and Long Reach, where Kelly Snyder took her program from scratch to the state final in four years.

Still, something was missing.

"You've got to get the younger kids, because they want to play something and if field hockey is not available, they're going to play something else," said Shelton, whose junior league now includes girls as young as 7.

Most coaches agree that field hockey is the last high school girls sport to hit a growth spurt on the grass-roots level.

Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association statistics bear that out.

The number of girls playing in state public high schools has grown from 3,314 in the 1989-90 school year to 3,885 in 2000-01.

However, a decade ago field hockey ranked third in popularity among girls sports. Now, it ranks sixth, trailing not just basketball and softball but also soccer, volleyball and track.

While soccer, basketball and softball experienced booms fueled by Olympic gold-medal exposure and the ensuing celebrity of their star athletes, field hockey did not.

"If we could get up there on the medal stand, that would help," said former Dulaney coach Melba Williams. "There's no TV coverage when you're not winning medals, so we're not educating the masses."

Young players are drawn to the sports they see on television and those sports were ready for them with networks of recreation, travel and/or club teams.

The United States Field Hockey Association had its Olympic-development style Futures Program, but that was intended to develop elite players ages 14 and older. Not until the last five years have widespread recreation and other youth programs emerged.

"The most telling thing of all is that this season I have five ninth-graders on varsity," said Ginger Kincaid, who has coached at Glenelg for 25 years. "I don't usually get 10th-graders on varsity, because it takes two years to play hockey to come up to that level."

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