By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

It is afternoon, in the town of Ashton, Md. Kids at neighborhood schools are going about their afternoon athletic activities in the usual way -- segregated by gender, and for the most part, on grass.

But at the nearby Mater Amoris Montessori School, there is something revolutionary going on. John Kovach, the school's physical education teacher, is running his field hockey players through drills like many other coaches.

There are differences, however. The players are dribbling, passing, and controlling the ball on a patch of blacktop alongside the school. Further, not all of the field hockey players are female.

Kovach's varsity team is co-educational, and is one of only a handful of school-based American field hockey teams which are of mixed gender and is one of the only ones where males have not had to take legal action against the school system in order to have the chance to play.

"To them, field hockey is just as much a boys'/men's sport as it is a girls'/women's sport," he says. "It is taught that way from the beginning."

He, however, is not a prophet or an activist in trying to get boys on girls' teams.

"I have been honest with the boys, telling them that there is a different set of sacrifices that they must make," Kovach says. "They must travel a different road."

One former Ocelot, Jeremy Cook, did travel this road, and played in the 1999 Pan American Games for Team USA.

"The boys and girls tend to feed off each other, and they function very nicely together," Kovach said. "This game provides leadership, not only in game play, but in the breaking down into small groups for skillwork"

Kovach knows of what he speaks. He is an assistant coach at the University of Virginia, and has seen plenty of the best competition in the country from his perch alongside the Wahoos' bench. But what you must realize is that Kovach is a different kind of educator at Mater Amoris.

"Maria Montessori professed a theory of education that allows kids to learn at their own pace," he says. "Now, the hockey program at our school moves a little away from the Montessori philosophy, in that we do play in leagues against other teams. Certainly, Dr. Montessori was a believer in physical education and the workings of the body. I believe she would be pleased with what we are doing."

Which is, in short, constantly thinking outside of the box in which scholastic field hockey finds itself in the United States. Kovach and the Ocelots innovate in ways that others do not, if only because they have not been given a good reason not to.

One way is in the Mater Amoris practice on blacktop. This keeps the youngsters interested in the game rather than being frustrated at having to hack at the ball on grass. But it also allows the middle-schoolers to concentrate on skillwork for occasional games on turf.

Another way the Ocelots differ from most scholastic teams is the fact that they embrace the Futures program and build off it, rather than operate in a standoffish way.

"It's the young ones, age 10 to 11, that we're trying to pipeline into Futures," he says. "They will have years of experience that many of their peers won't We work very, very hard at the skills, but I believe that they have to have an understanding of the game. They're not just hitting the ball around; they understand some of the nuances and strategies."

Another innovation is to send the team to the 1999 California Cup. Most American field hockey teams play strictly between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. However, as the Mater Amoris Ocelots revert to club status in the winter and spring semesters, they spend many hours on the blacktop and in an indoor soccer facility near Westminster, Md. to prepare for spring play.

"We went out there for the first time this year, and now we're starting to think of it as a culmination," Kovach said. "It has divisions that allow us to compete in our own age group, and not have to compete as 10-year-olds with the U-16s."

Overall, the Ocelots represent a unique innovative program in the United States. That the Oceltots are seen as unique shows just how many chances Kovach is taking -- and how far the American youth development system has to go.

"When you look at world-class field hockey teams, they have consistency," he says. "And I think one of the ingredients is that they start younger than we do. By the time our players are just starting, they have five, six years' experience on us." 1