— After a near-perfect season, the G.W. field hockey team hopes the sport spreads in the Northeast.
At George Washington High School, the highly successful football and boys soccer programs tend to grab the most headlines when it comes to fall sports.
After all, Ron Cohen would need three hands to count the number of championships he’s won as the long-time football coach, and Chris Reid’s soccer squads are usually ensconced atop the Public League standings.
But when the fall sports season ended, neither the Eagles’ football or soccer programs had won championships. Instead, it was another team — girls’ field hockey — that brought home the title.
“We’re not as recognized as the other sports,” senior captain Tiana Fluck said bluntly.
“It does get frustrating, having the season we had, and still only getting one line in the paper,” added Liz Miller, another senior captain.
Despite a 14-3 overall season — including a perfect 12-0 mark in the six-school Public League — that culminated in a league championship, fighting for headlines is nothing new for field hockey players in the Northeast, or anywhere for that matter.
In the fall, more mainstream sports — such as football and soccer — grab the most attention, if for no other reason than they are the most recognizable and familiar options.
And within this problem lies an even bigger one. For sports like football or soccer (baseball, softball and basketball too), kids are signing up to play at even earlier ages. Interest in the mainstream athletics is constant, but not so much for a sport like field hockey. Since not as many people are aware of it as an option for young, female athletes, development in the sport starts much later on. Thus, there’s not enough attention paid at the middle school level, where traditional feeder programs help produce more polished high school players.
“In the Public League especially, schools struggle to field teams and have long-term success due to lack of middle school exposure and these feeder schools,” said Kathy Paul, the second-year field hockey coach who also coaches G.W.’s girls basketball and softball teams.
“If every school had one of these feeder schools, more kids would be involved, thus making it more competitive. If they were introduced to it at an earlier age, there’d be more Division I (college) field hockey players.”
Paul gave credit to Public League sports head Robert Coleman for keeping field hockey an option, but problems remain. The Public League has just six active teams — Washington, Northeast, Central, Girls High, Franklin Towne Charter and Lincoln — and to hear a frustrated Paul tell it, that’s just “how it is in Public League field hockey. If they could get rid of it and spend the money somewhere else, I’m sure they would.”
Of course, airing these frustrations of underexposure would imply that this Washington team didn’t enjoy its time together, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Led by Fluck, Miller and a third senior captain, Barbara Danhardt, the Eagles were strong at the top. Those three were selected to the All-Public team, as were junior Jillian Laspee and sophomores Megan Elmer and Sarah Kleinbrahm.
They won every league game largely due to balance (Salena Powers led with 12 goals, Danhardt had nine and three other players had five or more goals), depth (“defense played a huge role,” said Paul) and, most of all, togetherness.
Fluck, a lacrosse player who didn’t take up field hockey until she was a sophomore, said Miller and Danhardt immediately accepted her and took her under their wings.
“They never pushed me away and were never negative toward me,” Fluck said. “It was a positive environment for my development, and it really made me want to be out there.”
Miller and Danhardt, whom Paul called her “Mini-Me’s,” are also softball players, but they took up field hockey and middle school and never looked back.
“I hadn’t really heard of field hockey and I wanted to try something new,” Danhardt said. “I just ended up liking the sport. It’s aggressive and requires you to be agile.”
After losing the 2011 championship game to Northeast with under a minute to play, the Washington seniors dedicated themselves even more, vowing to win one last championship as a group. (The Eagles appeared in the title game the last four years, winning two and losing two.)
“Going into this season, we saw this as our chance,” Miller said.
Though a rematch with Northeast wasn’t in the cards, the Eagles took care of Franklin Towne Charter in this season’s title game.
“Winning a championship your senior season,” Danhardt said. “That’s just about the best thing that can happen.”
Along the way, they also bonded off the field, selling T-shirts to raise money and awareness toward the fight against breast cancer. Paul said there were 100 shirts circulating around school within a day or two, and the Eagles played a night contest on Oct. 3 in which they handed out pink roses to relatives and survivors. The game itself was dedicated to the mothers of players Victoria Barrazza and Lindsay Johnson, both of whom have been afflicted by the disease.
In a nutshell, Paul wants people to know that “Field hockey is not a forgotten sport in the Public League, especially for schools in the Northeast.” The field hockey players and coaches want to win just as badly as their football and soccer counterparts, even if sometimes it seems like the success they enjoy is shrouded in secrecy.
“As a coach, I could not have hoped for a better season,” Paul said. “My kids worked hard and pulled together. This is a very special team, and I am happy the seniors will graduate as champions and be able to remember the perfect season.”
Of the three captains, only Danhardt will play field hockey in college (Fluck will play lacrosse, and Miller plans on joining the ROTC, perhaps at Drexel), but all three said they would remember this experience for the long haul. They also stressed their hope that more kids will look into field hockey as an option when it’s time to choose a sport.
“You hang around like-minded people,” Fluck said. “Once you fall into a sport like field hockey, it doesn’t let go. For me, it opened some doors and allowed me to look at things a little bit differently, all while gaining a new family.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org