SPECIAL REPORT: D.C. SNIPER CAUSED HAVOC, HEARTACHE FOR FIELD HOCKEY COMMUNITY
By Al Mattei
It was a sunny afternoon when Rockville S.D. Wootton (Md.) traveled to play crosstown rival Zadok Magruder Oct. 28, 2002.
It was a day which was a tremendous contrast to the previous three weeks. And it wasn't just because the early fall was wetter, colder, and darker than usual.
For in that period of time, average people from provincial southern Maryland to rural central Virginia had taken a little extra caution looking over their shoulders in the midst of their daily lives.
Routines changed, children were more closely watched, and many, many outdoor and leisure activities were curtailed.
The reason was a series of sniper shootings, concentrated in and around the D.C. metropolitan area, that took 14 lives.
Even more chilling were reports that the sniper specifically threatened children, a detail that media outlets sniffed out from an extraordinarily secretive police task force.
The serial shootings included one teenage boy, but the rest of the 13 shootings involved adults. Still, the reference to children -- especially the revelation at trial that Baltimore schools were targeted -- made a particular mess of the scholastic sports season.
The field hockey community, from Howard County in Maryland, just south of Baltimore, all the way to Richmond, Va. reacted. Throughout this corridor, games were postponed, practices cancelled or moved indoors, and entire seasons threatened.
"I haven't heard of moving this many games before," said National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) President Robert Kanaby. "I've heard where schools had to hold games without crowds because of fear that some harm would come to players, but those were isolated situations, involving one or two schools."
Those teams that did play had to take some extraordinary measures to save the season.
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) made an allowance for teams in affected counties to make the state tournament. Teams which had not played the required minimum of eight games would have their seedings based on the number of games played with the remaining number of games counted as losses.
"Every one of our teams was in the same boat," said S.D. Woodson head coach Stephen Swift. "Had they not found the sniper when they did, all Montgomery County teams would have been eliminated from the district tournament, which would have meant elimination from the state playoffs."
Indeed, the window of opportunity was roughly three days from closing. The alleged snipers were caught on an early Thursday morning; the state tournament began the following Monday.
"I'm very glad it's over," Swift said. "We had every practice indoors since October 8th, and we had to condition as best we could. We could work on our stickwork, but it's nothing like being outside. When we did go outside the first time, the kids were able to drive the ball, work on corners, and do things on a surface on which we actually play."
The game-day preparation was something altogether different, as Swift recounted days before Woodson's first-round playoff game.
"Monday's game may be very much like a preseason scrimmage in many respects, in that we haven't played for three weeks," he said.
Problem was, this was the start of the playoffs, where one loss ended the reborn season.
Long after the Virginia High School League's Northern Region tournament finished in early November, and the fans and teams had left the vast two-field complex at Oakton (Va.) High School, a team of about a dozen people were moving bleachers so that half would face one of the field, half the other.
Fresh dirt marked the trenches which were dug to install the cables to the school's two new scoreboards. The grass was immaculate.
The dozen or so people moving the bleachers are amongst the unsung heroes of the 2002 field hockey season: they wore all different jackets, different colors, but in the wake of a series of sniper shootings that terrorized an area of the mid-atlantic states from Baltimore to Richmond, the Northern Regional coaching committee saved the season.
Dave Morgan, the Oakton High School athletic director, watched the entire situation unfold and spread, as school district after school district went into Code Blue lockdowns, cancelled outdoor activities, and postponed athletic events.
"It has certainly been a unique experience," Morgan said. "What was unique for us, is that the field hockey coaches who work with us pulled together and did all of the scheduling and all of the planning so that we could, first of all, get the season finished so that we could have this tournament. To get that done was a huge accomplishment."
The coaches collectively made schedules, found sites at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va. and at Fort Belvoir just south of Lorton, Va., and played 57 games in about six days.
"It gave every kid, every team an opportunity to finish their seasons," Morgan said. "And it wasn't just for the playoff teams."
And it was appropriate that, amongst the dozen people moving the benches were coaches, athletic directors, and even a couple of former players, symbolic of the perioic efforts to literally save the field hockey season in northern Virginia.
Some teams that dared to play had taken the extraordinary step of not publicizing the time and/or site of some contests, making it difficult for fans and some potential college coaches to see players.
Some regions untouched by the violence made extraordinary arrangements. Anne Arundel County, several dozen miles east of the epicenter of the shootings, announced that all varsity events Oct. 18 and Oct. 21 were begin at 4 p.m. so that the events would end well before sundown.
"When we sat down for our daily meeting to discuss the latest [on the sniper situation], we had input from the county police that we discussed," Anne Arundel County coordinator of athletics Marlene Kelly told The Baltimore Sun. The final discussion was made by Anne Arundel County superindentent of schools Eric Smith.
Some parents have dissented with the decision, given the fact that not one shooting occurred during the normal hours of a high-school field hockey game, nor had any occurred in Anne Arundel County.
"As far as I'm concerned, they're negotiating with terrorists and we just can't do that," said Joe Poiter, an athletic parent, to the Sun. "We're sending a terrible message to our children that they are unsafe by canceling these activities and I think they're probably more unsafe on the highways and byways. We can't change our lives and our children's lives because of what one maniac might do."
The situation threw a monkey wrench into the Virginia state field hockey tournament, which had been scheduled to be played at Oakton (Va.). Reports had the Virginia tournament participants playing at the Olympic Training Center in Virginia Beach if the shootings continued.
"Athletes want to play, coaches want to play, parents want the games," Morgan says. "This is the kind of stuff that makes people really angry. But no one's complaining."
But the shooting rampage affected some teams adversely. Many with decent records were not able to complete the nine games necessary to qualify for Maryland state tournament play.
All of which made the efforts of two Montgomery County schools -- Poolesville (Md.) and Bethesda-Chevy Chase (Md.) all the more extraordinary. Both teams won dramatic state championship games after having their seasons truncated by the Code Blue situation.
"I don't think (the three-week break) hindered us at all," said Poolesville head coach Regina Grubb. "We played indoors in the gym, ran where we could, and played small-games, which really helped."