By Al Mattei


When the British schoolmarm Constance Applebee brought field hockey to the United States in the early 1900s, it was not to major American cities. Rather, in spreading the gospel of the game in Cambridge, Mass. (just outside of Boston) and on the Main Line outside of the Philadelphia city limits, she ensured that the game would develop into pretty much the form it has today: as a regional sport popular among females outside of major cities.

The game of field hockey has not developed in cities like baseball and basketball have. It has flourished around, not in, major Northeastern population centers. And with the advent of the American suburb, with good schools outside of urban areas, field hockey is a major suburban sport.

There are exceptions. In the District of Columbia, which is nearly 90 percent African-American, there is field hockey to be played. In Philadelphia's public schools, there is the City League. In Baltimore, one of the most diverse cities in the country, some of the best players in the country ply their trade. And 30 minutes south, in Washington, D.C., there is also good hockey to be found.

However, for the most part, the game has not embraced the African-American athlete in city schools. Private school enrollment is almost overwhelmingly white. Indeed, of the major Northeastern cities, the only urban public school league is in Philadelphia, hard by the very site where Applebee first taught schoolgirls about the game millions of American girls and women still play.

Philadelphia Northeast (Pa.) High School is located at the corner of Cottman and Somerdale Avenues in a windswept neighborhood dominated by low-rise red brick townhouses and duplexes.

Dottie Walton, now the head coach at Philadelphia George Washington (Pa.) says that she hasn't seen many changes in the neighborhood since she began coaching field hockey for Northeast in the fall of 1957. The fences surrounding the multi-acre property adjoining the school are in less-than-pristine shape. Goalposts of various colors and states of disrepair jut through the uneven ground seemingly at random. A freshly painted red soccer goalpost and a gray wraith of a football goalpost are positioned uncomfortably close to each other.

Over the warped chain link fence of the baseball outfield is the Northeast High hockey field, where host Northeast is warming up to play George Washington, the defending Philadelphia Public League champion.

Walton, head coach at Washington, saw a lot in her 41 years of coaching City League field hockey. Philadelphia's public school teams have never been subject to PIAA supervision, and are instead governed by a home-grown athletic steering committee. This has allowed the schools to play under international rules, like teams in the Friends School League and the Inter-Ac Conference.

"When I started years and years ago, we didn't even have championships for girls. We didn't even have more than six or seven games a year," said Walton, who has coached George Washington for 35 years, starting in 1964. "It wasn't until 1969 when we had a playoff game, and it was a softball game between Northeast High and Washington."

There has been a devolution in City League field hockey in recent years. There were less than 10 public schools playing the game in the 1998 season, and with some Roman Catholic schools either downsizing or leaving the city for glitzy suburban campuses, there does not appear to be a bull market in scholastic field hockey in Philadelphia coming any time soon. Women like Walton have kept going, however, preaching the gospel of the game to anyone who would listen.

"Most other schools do not have field hockey, and that's a real shame," Walton says. "There are a lot of opportunities for youngsters for scholarships in college, but the facilities are just not there."

Walton retired from coaching after the 1998 season, but still has memories of long bus trips through traffic to make those 3 p.m. games. She also has memories of not-so-good fields which are used by many groups throughout the year.

"Actually," she said, indicating the dusty Northeast High pitch, "this is one of the better fields we play on. The people do the best they can with the fields, but they don't take care of them, and the weather isn't agreeable to the grass."

On this day, Walton's team falls behind 1-0 in the first few minutes, but is able to take the lead on the kind of play it might take about 41 years to see again. A long through pass went in on the Northeast goal, and the goalkeeper was indecisive as to whether or not to clear the ball. She managed to misplay the ball so that it rolled just short of the goal line, at which point the Washington forward line pounced on the loose ball and rammed it into the cage.

"In many ways, I have felt fortunate because Washington has been more like a suburban school than an urban school," Walton says. "I've had bright athletes, the facilities, and the cooperation of the administration and the parents. It's the only reason I've stayed around."

One other reason has to be the way that Walton has been more than just a coach, but a full-fledged instructor. Very few Philadelphia public school students have been exposed to the game of field hockey before ninth grade. Indeed, George Washington's roster was often filled with softball and soccer players. Once, Walton even had the use of a set of twins who were top-notch scholastic rowers.

"These youngsters come in ninth and 10th grades, and we have to teach them the game of hockey," Walton says. "I have friends who coach in Jersey, and they start in sixth and seventh grade. We have a very limited program in Baldi Middle School (in Philadelphia), but that's it."

The players reflect the population of the neighborhoods in which the schools are located, as there is only one person of color on both rosters, Northeast winger Dana Ferguson. She was able to show the explosive quickness which she exhibited in their first meeting of the season, which had been a 3-0 victory. In this return match, however, Washington was able to eke out a 3-2 win.

On the same day, Shizuka Baker is arranging for Philadelphia Friends Select (Pa.) field hockey team to hop a bus in front of school to drive to nearby Fairmount Park for practice. Like most schools in Philadelphia, there is very little nearby ground for sports teams to play. However, this is not the only reason Friends Select is practicing in the park.

You see, Friends Select has an unusual athletic feature: a field made of artificial turf, spread out on the roof of one of its buildings.

"It's great to have the games up there," Baker says. "It's a truer game, and it's great for the younger kids to have it, because I think more and more colleges will get turf."

This means, however, that in order for the Falcons to prepare for the other half of the games on its schedule, it needs to practice on grass, which it is doing in preparation for a game against Newtown George School (Pa.).

"We have to get buses scheduled, which is a challenge unto itself," Baker says. "It's a mental and physical thing, but I think we've overcome that."

Baker, only one year removed from her athletic career at Lafayette, knows she has jumped into a unique situation, even though the makeup of her varsity team does not necessarily reflect the population of Philadelphia.

"Our middle-school team is very diverse," Baker says. "It's great to see that, when we work together, we become like a family."

Beneath the gothic shadows cast by The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in the northwest quadrant of the District of Columbia, the varsity field hockey team of Washington National Cathedral School (D.C.) varsity warms up on its bumpy field, surrounded by an ivy-covered chain link fence.

As is the case with many urban field hockey teams on the Eastern seaboard, National Cathedral School is a private school in the Independent School League (ISL), which encompasses institutions in the greater D.C. metropolitan area.

The field hockey played inside the Beltway is somewhat isolated from its neighbors. Not only is there no field hockey in public schools in the District, there is also very little in some adjoining counties. There is only one team in Prince William County, Va., none in Prince George's County, Md.

As such, it is big news when a player from the Capital region gets recognition for her efforts. Mina Pell, a junior forward, was the only one of the roughly 420 players selected to the 1998 National Futures Tournament with a D.C. mailing address.

"I had no idea," Pell said. "I didn't get a (tournament) program: I just played."

Pell, an attacking midfielder who is as efficient as she is aggressive, got a look at the best field hockey in the county in July of 1998, playing alongside essentially an all-star team from the state of Maryland. It helped her get noticed by Harvard -- though her grades didn't hurt, either.

"I had thought of myself more as a Marylander last summer," said Pell, who won gold in the summer of 1998 with Team Dover, a team with 12 Maryland players, in the U-19 division.

"It was a good thing I was out there, representing D.C.," Pell said. "There are now a lot more girls in D.C. trying out for the Futures program. Having a lot more girls from D.C. is beneficial to the game."

Unlike many private school teams in urban areas, a pair of African Americans were on the National Cathedral School roster in 1998. The Eagles' goalkeeper, Alaina Harper, was a highly rated lacrosse prospect who went to the University of Pennsylvania. A reserve midfielder, Camille Green, is a star in the making.

The District of Columbia, as a small part of the American field hockey community, is vulnerable. A little problem like the lack of quality umpiring tends to drag down the game's development. In one game in the 1998 season, an umpiring crew was seen:

1. Halting a corner because an insertion pass to the top of the circle was above knee height;

2. Calling at least three "phantom" advancing violations;

3. Missing just about every third-party obstruction call in the game;

4. Calling a dangerous stick on a midfield free hit, though the player missed the ball and no player on the opposing team was within seven, much less five, yards from the ball.

a. The umpires compounded that error when allowing a player from the other team to advance to the ball and take it away on an "advantage" call.

b. The umpires further compounded the error by green-carding one of the coaches when she asked for a clarification.

c. The umpires even further compounded that error by yellow-carding the assistant coach for the same transgression.

d. The umpires still further compounded the error by sending the yellow-carded assistant coach off the field for five minutes (which is not called for in the rule book).

With this kind of officiating, it is no wonder why D.C. field hockey has so little respect in the eyes of its peers.