"You gonna cheer for me?" Becky Skinner playfully yelled to her 3-year-old son, Cody, last week as she warmed up for the semifinals of the Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks Women's Field Hockey League in Crownsville.
The little boy didn't respond but instead ran up and gave his mom a big hug, then playfully chased her around the field as the players on Skinner's Iris team prepared for their game against Orange.
With Cody and Suzanne Skinner, Becky's mother, watching from the sideline, Becky played defense with intensity, stopping an opponent from advancing the ball and yelling, "Nice teamwork , guys!" after captain Betz Wild scored for a 1-0 lead. Iris won that game and captured the championship (collecting tie-dye tank tops as trophies) later that night, defeating Yellow, 2-1.
For 23-year-old Becky Skinner, there is comfort in this game of swinging sticks, a temporary reprieve from the stresses of being a single mom, attending college fulltime, working part time and traversing the family court system to gain full custody of her son.
"It's one of the things I look forward to the most. Field hockey is what I like to do best," said Skinner, an Annapolis resident who has played for the Iris team for three years. "Going through the custody thing with my son the last couple of years has been tough. We had to move. Now I feel more settled. I think [the stresses of it all] reflected in my play the past couple of years [in the summer league]."
Skinner has not had an easy road these past 6 1/2 years, since the days when she was a solid defenseman for perennial Maryland powerhouse Severna Park. She was called up to the varsity for the playoffs as a sophomore in the fall of 1997 and won a state championship a few weeks later. She was, her mom recalled last week, even selected to play for a Futures team, a sort of college development field hockey squad, while she was in high school.
Skinner played for the Falcons and legendary coach Lil Shelton in her junior year, too, but just a month after the season ended, she suffered a tragic loss that she says still hurts.
One of Becky's best friends since elementary school who was also a field hockey teammate jumped to her death off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in December 1998. Skinner never suspected a problem with her friend, recalling a car ride shortly before the incident in which her friend told her she was doing just fine.
"I don't even like driving across the bridge now," she said. "It just brings it all back."
About three months later, more sadness: A close friend of her older brother, Todd, died of a shotgun wound in his basement, a death that was never fully explained as either accidental or a suicide. He was a boy she knew well through Todd.
"It affected me," said Skinner, "because it brought back [her friend's death] just to see my brother so upset, because he doesn't really show emotion."
At the end of her junior year, her parents separated, and when field hockey season rolled around that fall, Skinner did not go out for the team.
"I kind of withdrew, got into trouble, got with another group of two girls," said Skinner. "We would go out and party and stuff. That was kind of my way of dealing with it."
At one point, Skinner planned to play field hockey and study at York College, just an hour up Interstate 83. But she decided to attend Anne Arundel Community College for a year and then transfer to York.
It never happened. She got pregnant at 19 in early 2001, but the relationship with her boyfriend soured before Cody's first birthday; then came accusations of Skinner being an unfit mother, leveled by her ex-boyfriend's family, and two-plus years of custody battles ensued.
Now, however, she is on the verge of gaining full custody of her son; Cody's father, whom the boy still sees every other weekend, has signed the papers granting Becky custody, she said. She is also on the verge of being a social worker. After getting an associate's degree from Anne Arundel, Skinner attends classes at Bowie State University during the day and hopes to graduate in the spring of 2006. She then plans to enroll in an accelerated master's degree program at Howard University or the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
And she loves her job. As a rehabilitation specialist at Arundel Lodge in Annapolis, Skinner helps mentally ill patients, assisting with personal hygiene, monitoring medication, taking residents to appointments and helping with grocery shopping. She took four of them to one of her field hockey games this summer.
"They had a blast," she said with a laugh. "They kept asking to go again."