Joyce Jones, coach, Princeton (N.J.); Barb Major, coach, Lawrence Notre Dame (N.J.), Barb Skiba, coach, Pennington Hopewell Valley Central (N.J.); Chris Haines, coach, Mansfield Northern Burlington County (N.J.)
One in an occasional series.
By Al Mattei
The 1995 field hockey season was not kind to a certain class of field hockey coach in Central New Jersey.
That year was supposed to represent a turning point of sorts; the Futures program being in its second generation, players expected to succeed in the high-school game through individual rather than team skills.
There was no room for the old-fashioned type of coach who drilled, disciplined, molded, and shaped young minds and bodies, taking what they had and making the most of it. It was supposed to be a game of the future.
The 1995 season represented a nadir for four coaches clustered in the middle of New Jersey, all of whom had to hear the naysayers:
"Joyce Jones?" the naysayers might have said. "Nobody good plays for Princeton High anymore. There are six prep schools in Mercer County. The most literate population in the country certainly reads the papers enough to know that sending your kid to prep school is the best way to prepare the mind as well as the college prospect."
"And what about the situation at Notre Dame?" others might have asked when the Irish graduated 12 seniors from the Central Jersey Group III championship team. "Players don't get good anymore when learning the game in ninth grade from Barb Major, for crissake. They have to start at age five, when the soccer players get started."
There had to be other pundits shaking their heads up the road at Hopewell Valley after the Bulldogs failed to make the state tournament for the first time in 23 years.
"The game has passed Barb Skiba by," they had to be thinking. "The corners she's running are from 1963, they are practicing roll-ins during pre-game warmups, and they're thinking about breaking out the long-toed sticks. Further, the younger sisters of many of her former stars are doing other sports. Perhaps they know something?"
These kind of thoughts might not have been limited to Mercer County, for just over the border into Burlington County, one regional school also had fallen on hard times.
"There's no hope for either Northern Burlington or Chris Haines," the naysayers were mumbling. "The old-fashioned way of coaching doesn't work any longer."
Three years later, however, the naysayers have gone, but these four coaches, now with nearly a century of field hockey coaching experience, are not only still around, but still able to bring out the best in their players.
In fact, in the fall of 1998, all four teams had, by virtue of posting .500 records by the state tournament cutoff date, qualified for the New Jersey state field hockey tournament.
How did they do it? The old-fashioned way.
Not, as the investment ad said in the 1970s, by earning it, but by making their players earn it. There is something to be said about being able to take raw materials -- teenagers with desire, intelligence, and some athleticism -- and turn them into something even they didn't even think they could be. None of the four teams has a star Futures player; in fact, of the members of the four rosters, it is hard to come up with a handful of players destined for Division I field hockey.
Certainly, there are many programs which can be considered "privileged." There are feeder programs in Medford and West Caldwell, N.J., Virginia Beach, Va., and Newtown, Pa. which can yield young prodigies which makes a coach's life much easier. There, the varsity coach can be a motivator and coordinator -- and little else.
But, for Joyce Jones, Barb Skiba, Chris Haines, and Barb Major, field hockey represents something more. Oh, yes, it takes talent to play. It takes even more talent to be able to learn the game without the benefits of multimillion-dollar training programs and out-of-state camps.
These four coaches keep it simple. And somehow, the game of field hockey is better off for their successes.