Netting interest in field hockey

On the rebound, the sport is gaining in popularity with female rec-level athletes

At Play

September 21, 2005|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,special to the sun

Anne Arundel County has long been known for producing some of the toughest high school field hockey teams in Maryland. Since statewide competition began in the mid-1970s, county schools have won 18 state championships.

Broadneck and South River high schools have won two state titles apiece; South River's second championship came last year. But Severna Park has brought home the most championships - 14 since 1979 - and has made five more trips to the title game in its size category.

The three schools have something in common that most agree has helped with their success over the years: strong recreation programs.

That introduction to the sport at an early age means that girls enter high school understanding the game and ready to compete at a higher level.

"The sport has been around for years ... and the numbers are starting to get a little bigger," said Georgette Shalhoup, a sports supervisor for the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks who has overseen the county's youth leagues for four years.

Ten community-based youth sports organizations throughout the county are fielding 68 recreation-level teams involving about 1,000 players this fall, Shalhoup said. The girls play in three age groups: 8-10, 10-12 and 12-14.

Field hockey slowly declined in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s, the dip attributed mostly to the interest in soccer that exploded in the United States during those two decades.

But field hockey - though it is rarely shown on television, which affects popularity - is on the rebound, at least locally.

Shalhoup said enrollment countywide in pre-high school programs has increased by about 50 percent over the last four years. Part of the reason, she said, has been the sharp increases during the same period in most girls sports. That's a ripple effect of Title IX of the Federal Education Act, which requires balanced facilities and opportunities for males and females in college athletics.

"Girls have more of an opportunity now [to play sports]," Shalhoup said. "Soccer is growing, too. It's not taking away [from field hockey]."

Tom Jester's daughters were interested in dancing before they learned about field hockey several years ago.

They started the sport at the youngest level in the Lake Shore Athletic Association program, from which most young athletes feed into Chesapeake High, and Jester learned about the game and began coaching it there. He eventually became commissioner of the sport for the Lake Shore organization.

But Jester moved on to start a field hockey program at the Monsignor Slade Catholic School in Glen Burnie last year. This year, Jester is working with Archbishop Spalding High in Severn and several other Catholic high school coaches, and is building a program.

"I think that Anne Arundel County is a stronghold in field hockey at the rec level," Jester said. "I think you've got some very strong feeders that have been set up."

Broadneck Area Youth Sports has been one of the organizations with a solid number of field hockey players in recent years. It is fielding nine age-group teams this fall, serving about 140 players, said commissioner Elizabeth Eshleman.

She gives credit for the sport's growth to the way high school coaches and some players connect with the recreation players - contact that can make a lasting impression as a young athlete sorts out his or her preferences as the teen years approach and competition becomes more serious.

"That really makes a difference," Eshleman said. "They hold clinics for our [older] players every year, and they're very communicative with the rec league."

Marlene Kelly, coordinator of athletics for the Anne Arundel County schools, is another believer in the way coaches and players connect with the recreation athletes.

"Strong recreation programs with good instruction certainly make the junior varsity and varsity coaches' jobs a lot easier, because they are setting the groundwork for skills and development," Kelly said.

Kelly said she encourages coaches and players to go to recreation games. She also tries to get athletes to do things like volunteer at clinics to work with the younger children and make that good impression.

But Shalhoup wants to make sure that the rec programs don't just serve as a feeder to the local schools. The girls might find success at Severna Park, South River, Broadneck or other schools, but Shalhoup said they could also help keep interest in the sport high in Anne Arundel County.

"[We want] to teach a lifetime sport that people will play for a long time after high school," she said.

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