DEDICATED VOLUNTEERS TRANSCEND GARDEN STATE GAMES' DEMISE

By Al Mattei
Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

Many of the United States sponsor their own Olympic-style multi-event athletic competitions. Whether it is the Bay State Games in Massachusetts of one of the two festivals in Virginia (the Virginia State Games and the Virginia Commonwealth Games), they became opportunities for the youth of a particular U.S. state to come together in the spirit of competition.

Then there is the state of New Jersey. The Garden State Games had begun in 1983 and by the early 1990s had events in numerous sports including waterskiing and rhythmic gymnastics.

By 1998, however, it became clear that budget cuts, the withdrawal of corporate support from an auto dealership network, and rumors about the misappropriation of funds from earlier Games would signal their demise.

The cancellation of the 1998 Summer Games was announced statewide. But someone didn't bother to tell the passionate and close-knit New Jersey field hockey community.

In July of 1998, at Montclair State University, there were groups of athletes wearing one of four different colored jerseys, chasing a field hockey ball around the AstroTurf field. And the words on the front of the uniform read "Garden State Games."

Since then, the event has been a traveling show. The event has stopped in such far-flung areas as Camden, West Windsor, and Hoboken.

Just another exercise in defiant survival for the game of field hockey in the United States.

"Field hockey is a survivor's sport," said Leslie LaFronz, who has been involved in the Games since 1985 as a player, coach, and volunteer. "We're not a money-drawing sport and we're not a high-profile sport. We've always had to pay our own way and done what we needed to do. Other sports aren't used to that."

Much of the survival of the field hockey event had to do with the same group of volunteers who not only helped start the game, but grew it into a tournament with serious relevance when it came to where it fit in player development.

For many of the Garden State Games events, they were either "just another tournament" for the whole recreational soccer or softball teams entered in their brackets, or perhaps the only outlet for their sport all season, as is the case for waterskiing, masters track and field, or rhythmic gymnastics.

However, what made the GSG field hockey event unique was that it also fit within the parameters of the U.S. Field Hockey Association's player development umbrella. Those chosen for certain GSG teams qualified to the Futures program the next year.

Why? The Games was one of the first of the "state games" to require standardized skill and fitness testing to enter rather than have the requirement be a postmark on an envelope.

The tournament was also the first in America to use international rules for U-19 and U-16 play -- several years before Futures was started. And it was also the first to be held on artificial turf.

Also making the event unique was the mixed and women's tournaments which make up part of the field hockey event. Though the rosters changed every year, the same people come back year after year. That has helped the tournament be one of the only GSG events which had been self-sufficient.

"The Garden State Games had a full-time paid staff, but [in 1998], we had to do it with five or six people," said Mim Chappell-Eber, who has been involved in the Garden State Games as coach, player, volunteer, and umpire. "And there were hours upon hours of work. I gather they were a success, since I haven't heard anything bad about it."

"Because of the lack of funding, you don't have the sense of a Games," LaFronz said. "There aren't other nearby sports that you can go and watch."

Despite its isolation from the other events played in the summer of 1998, the event was still one of the best-organized, thanks to many of the same group of volunteers which have brought the event along and turned it into something truly special, despite this year's changes.

"If it's planned correctly, all the sports should be able to sustain themselves with volunteers," LaFronz said. "If we can sustain ourselves and have a profit, why couldn't any other sport do it?"

"It took a lot of volunteers and a lot of parents," said Chappell-Eber. "It was an awful lot of work this year, but it was worth it. It was a fairly successful event, for the size staff we had. And we had no money to start with."


For information on the 2005 tournament to be held in Hoboken, emailjreed1@stevens.edu.

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