Lil Shelton began coaching the field hockey team at Severna Park High 25 years ago, and since then she has watched with envy as the other girls sports at her school--soccer, basketball, lacrosse and volleyball--have boomed in popularity.
Although Shelton's teams won 11 state titles, including eight of the last nine Maryland 4A crowns, the sport has struggled for an audience.
The situation was the same across the Washington area. The reason? Field hockey, Shelton said, did not have the benefit of having a male equivalent like other sports. So to gain popularity, it had to "stand on its own two feet," she said.
"Because there is no male program to catch the imagination, it's just really tough" [to promote the sport, Shelton said.
Now, Shelton and several other area coaches said increased participation, improved play and the steep increase in offseason programs that have made field hockey a year-round sport have helped it find a niche in high school athletics. Coaches also point to the growth in popularity of soccer, the dedication of high school coaches and the recent rule changes as having a favorable impact on the sport.
"There was a time where some of us in field hockey were concerned because there were no [offseason] programs," said Marsha Way, head coach at St. Stephen's/St. Agnes. "But that's starting to make a change."
Title IX, the 1972 law requiring gender equity in higher education, has continued to help women's sports, including field hockey, and has resulted in more college scholarships, which encourage more student-athletes to pursue the sport.
We examine six reasons that have helped propel field hockey's upward momentum.
Starr Karl needed something to do in the summer of 1994, having left her job as field hockey coach at Fairfax High two years earlier after the birth of her third child. She wanted to do something to stoke interest for field hockey, a sport she had coached for 13 years. So, Karl began a summer field hockey league, the first of its kind in the Washington area. She ran the program at Fairfax.
"I felt there was a need for the kids to do more," Karl said. "I felt there needed to be an avenue for them to play outside of high school. I knew if someone gave them the opportunity they could do it."
Her instincts were right. In the league's first year, it drew about 100 players from eight school teams. This summer, it was attended by 350 players from 20 teams, said Karl, who has coached at Centreville the past two seasons.
It's no longer the only program. Five other area high schools will host leagues this fall. On the national level, the U.S. Field Hockey Association began its Futures Program in the early 1990s. The program selects the best players from each state and puts them into national and international competition. Montgomery County added a youth program this past spring and Anne Arundel County recently started a junior league that drew 185 girls, according to Shelton.
Coaches say the increase in programs has had a twofold effect. First, it has allowed players to hone their skills and work together on teams. Second, it has attracted new players who may have just been looking for a sport to play.
"I think the kids' interest has always been there," said Cindy Hook, head coach at Annandale. "I just think the opportunities to play outside of their high school has not been there."
The indoor game, which started in the early '80s, is the field hockey equivalent of arena football or indoor soccer. It's played with six players on each team, with boards set up instead of chalk lines and balls can be played off the boards.
Karl created an indoor league in Northern Virginia six years ago, with the help of several other area coaches, including Andy Muir of W.T. Woodson and April Keating of Fairfax.
According to Muir, the program originally was held one or two nights a week, with 30 to 40 girls participating on any night. But the program has grown. This past winter it was held four nights a week, drawing 50 to 60 kids each night.
"We get a lot of younger kids that come out and start playing in the winter time and they really enjoy it," Karl said. "They get a real nice feel for the game and they come out for the fall."
Dedication of Coaches
Teri Davis is coach of the field hockey and softball teams at Jefferson. She said field hockey coaches have formed a close-knit fraternity.
"[Among softball coaches] it's us against them," Davis said. "But it's not like that in field hockey. There's a lot of sharing, there's a lot of working together."
Because rules have become more technical, it has become incumbent on more coaches to stay actively involved in their sport, including playing in adult and recreation leagues.
"I'm not the same coach I was 10 or 15 years ago," Hook said. "I've learned new things, and I'm passing them on to my kids."
In addition, more schools appear to be requiring coaches to have a field hockey background. In years past, according to Karl, schools often would select "generic" coaches.
"In field hockey you have a lot of teaching," Karl said. "Whereas with other sports, you have all your other feeder programs and they come in and know what they're doing. You just have to get the kids together and tell them what they're doing. You can't do that in field hockey."
Many field hockey coaches believe their sport has benefited from the booming popularity of high school soccer, which they say has also helped bring more girls into team sports.
And, according to Centennial Coach Gail Purcell, some girls begin playing soccer at such a young age they grow tired of the sport--then switch to field hockey.
"For whatever reason, they've made a choice to leave those programs, they've had a negative experience, and they see there's such a great opportunity in field hockey," Purcell said. "It is the only sport left where you can actually come into high school knowing nothing about the sport and become very successful."
Hook coached soccer for 16 years before switching to lacrosse two years ago. She pointed out that the rules, tactics and object of field hockey and soccer are similar.
"I also believe that field hockey's growth is tied to soccer's growth because a lot of the field hockey players have soccer backgrounds," she said. "They like the idea of playing a team sport. And having a sport that has similar attributes to soccer, I think that helps."
Opening Up the Game
For years, field hockey was dogged by criticism that it was a difficult sport to watch because little happens. But those in charge of field hockey have taken steps to make the game more palatable for fans and parents.
In the last few years, two key rules have been put into place that have opened up the game, and brought about more scoring.
"You're starting to see that 3-2 and 2-1 scores are becoming more regular than 1-0," Muir said.
The most drastic change has been the elimination of the offsides rule, which required offensive players to stay behind the ball or an opposing defender. According to Muir, the rule change three years ago "opened up the game completely."
The other important change was the easing of the obstruction rule, which has been altered slowly over the last 10 years. In the past, a player with possession of the ball could not move toward the goal with her back to a defender, thus giving defenders a better chance to make steals. Now, as long as the player is moving, she can shield the ball from the defender.
"You can spin now," Muir said. "You can go up to a player and do a 360 on her, which you couldn't do before."
"It gets really fun," said Wood, whose team has won five state titles since she took over in 1993 and seven this decade. "The game has gotten better. We had numerous higher [scoring] games last year.