By Al Mattei


New Jersey, though one of the smallest of the United States, is perhaps the most diverse in many ways. Its topography ranges from farmland in the south to beaches on the east to a mountainous northwest to marshland across the bay from New York City.

Its cultures range from Italians in Trenton to an influx of Eastern Europeans in Jersey City to a heavy Latino presence in Perth Amboy. There is urban and rural, suburban and shore, all in one state.

It is almost symbolic that many of these cultures intersect in the middle of the state, in a county called Middlesex.

Piscataway, N.J. is a collage of strip malls, industrial parks, professional office space, a kaleidoscopic variety of housing units, and part of the Rutgers University campus. A couple of miles from the edge of Rutgers' sprawling campus is Piscataway High School.

Up until the 2000 season, Jackie Fives has been the field hockey coach at Piscataway. There, she has coached players from more cultures and more skin tones than perhaps any other scholastic hockey coach in America.

Indeed, when Piscataway had its brush with field hockey immortality -- coming within a few minutes of winning the 1996 Central Jersey Group IV state sectional championship -- more than a third of the Chiefs' starting lineup was African-American.

"Oh, we had Bessey Adjah, Akosua Asamoah, La'Toyah Foster -- that was a few years back," says Fives, who is Caucasian. "We had some great speed on the outsides."

It was that kind of speed from this trio and from Enewan Adjah -- Bessey's younger sister -- that really kept the opposition off balance in 1996. Piscataway won the Greater Middlesex tournament that season and snared the top seed in its section. The Chiefs won their way through the first rounds, then hosted tournament favorite Flemington Hunterdon Central (N.J.) in the sectional final. Piscataway was able to use the home field to take a lead when the elder Adjah outsprinted her opposing defenders with a world-class burst of speed and scored on a breakaway.

The early goal set the two-time Group IV Hunterdon Central team back on its heels, a place to which the Red Devils, having won state championships in 1993 and 1994, were unaccustomed. The Chiefs, moreover, could have won the game if not for a missed penalty stroke late in the second half, but the visitors escaped with a hard-fought win in the last six minutes of play.

The 1996 team still sticks in Fives' mind, and not just because of the skin color of her players.

"With Lisa (Guarnieri) in that group, I think were 56-0 in our conference in the regular season," Fives said. "We had a great season: (Hunterdon Central) was a game we should have won."

Fives, as a gym teacher, gets to see the talent coming thtough the area middle schools, which means that she could cherry-pick once the players hit ninth grade or expose her middle-schoolers to the game.

"I pick athletes: I don't look at skin color," Fives says. "I see who can run, who can dribble. If you're a good athlete, you've got carryover skills. I try to identify talent, and I do some stuff in the offseason with the middle schools."

Unlike many other schools across the United States, Fives developed a deep, diverse player pool, and gave everyone a fair shot at making the team. Piscataway rosters over the years have read like the United Nations: West Africa, Italy, Pakistan, Colombia, the Phillipines, India, Greece.

"That's the way it's always been: I don't ever remember saying, 'Let's see what color this person is, then we can figure out what to do with her,' " Fives says. "(In 1992), somebody came up to me and said, 'Do you realize how diverse your team is when you look at the ethnic backgrounds and your sport itself?' "

Fives never noticed; she was completely comfortable with every new bunch of players who came through the halls.

"It's not a black-white issue for me: it's a Piscataway against East Brunswick issue," Fives says. "I just try to identify the kids who are talented or have a desire to play, and we take it from there. It's been a welcome tradition at Piscataway."