DEBBIE LOWRANCE'S IDEA BECOMES A NATIONAL MODEL
By AL MATTEI
Look carefully at a map of the east coast of the United States, and cross-reference the towns where major collegiate field hockey players call home. The cities and towns are concentrated in a couple of strips in New England, an large oval area centered around Philadelphia and the Main Line, and scattered spots in other states.
As your eyes wander further south, you see a large open area south of the District of Columbia until you hit the Hampton Roads region of Virginia -- Norfolk and Virginia Beach. You might think that the reason so many good field hockey players come from there is the presence of multiple NCAA Division I champion Old Dominion.
However, there is another reason: the largest off-season field hockey league in the country. Nearly 600 young women gather in around the Virginia Beach area for six or seven months out of the year, both indoors and out, improving their skills and conditioning.
They all have one woman to thank for the operation: Debbie Lowrance. She is a woman whose activism in the local field hockey community started small, but grew beyond her original imagination.
"Actually," she confesses, "it was self-serving. I wasn't finished playing hockey, but I was finished playing my college hockey (at nearby Longwood College).
I started a club in Virginia Beach, and played with a lot of my college and high-school teammates. By the time my girls were four or five years old, I was playing with them in the front yard with cut-down hockey sticks."
In the early 80s, spurred by memories of how difficult it was for girls to have a chance to compete in recreational sports, Lowrance started holding free clinics to allow players, including her daughters, extra playing experience out of season.
After a couple of years, news of the league and its benefits spread by word of mouth as well as by observation on the field of play. And as the applications came in, the league grew to its present size.
"Frank W. Cox (the multiple Virginia state champion) had a feeder school with one of the former players as their coach," Lowrance explained. "They were the first (of the 11 field hockey programs in Virginia Beach) to require their players to play off-season in my league. When everyone else started seeing that it was working, they got on the bandwagon for playing in the off-season. There is parity now: I would say that eight or nine of them could play any other school in the state and put them at their mercy."
Lowrance is part of the reason why the Hampton Roads district, which includes Cox, is so tough in state tournament play. But she didn't have any idea of her impact until she got invited to major field hockey functions ... all because she wanted her young children to pick up the sport at an early age.
"They say, 'Do you realize that there's no other league in the country who is doing what you're doing with the numbers that you're doing it with?' " Lowrance said. "And I said, " 'No: I wouldn't know that.' We just like what we're doing."
There are lessons Lowrance has learned to bring the league to where it is. Here are a few of the steps she has taken to helps her league be successful:
1. A fee, no matter how small, is the best inducer of participation.
Lowrence recalls a time when, in the second year of the clinic, only a handful of students showed up. A parent told her, "Well, this must not be a very good clinic, because it doesn't cost anything."
"Therein, I learned my lesson," Lowrance said. "The very next season, there was a fee for playing. To say the least, every girl showed up every Saturday morning because their parents had invested some money and their time."
2. Details, no matter how small, are incredibly important.
Besides the facilities, items like referees, trainers, insurance, even corner flags are critical to the success of any league. Business savvy is also important in marketing any off-season league from one year to the next.
"I had to incorporate the business and get insurance," Lowrance said. "And I had to get into that end of it. But, my girls got to play: I got what I wanted."
3. Winter play is desirable, but not necessarily critical.
Only since 1996 has Lowrance has has winter field hockey. She has instead relied on warmer temperatures to play spring ball (from April through May) and in the summer (June through August).
4. Allow time for experimentation or just plain having fun.
After league games are concluded in most off-season leagues, everybody goes home or the lights get shut off. Not in Virginia Beach. Pickup games are played for as long as people can hold out, and the occasional Indian or Pakistani male player joins in.
5. Age-appropriate rules can help kids get better quickly.
In the youth field hockey games (under 10) in Virginia Beach, there are no goalkeepers ("They need to feel what it's like to score," Lowrance explains), and all players rotate positions to that no single player monopolizes a position.
In addition, there are no lines on the field to keep play moving and to keep overzealous parents from hassling game officials.