STEPH HARVILLA: THE TOUGHEST FIELD HOCKEY PLAYER IN AMERICA
By Al Mattei
After Steph Harvilla finishes playing a field hockey game, an ice bag looks awfully good to her. Since first picking up a field hockey stick her freshman year at Hightstown Peddie School (N.J.), she has picked up more dents and dings than a New York City taxicab after a year on the street.
"I could use an ice bath," said the senior fullback after playing a first-round game in the 1998 Mercer County Tournament. "I got hit in the chest today. I wasn't even supposed to play."
The senior has a reason for being hurt. She plays perhaps the most extreme position in the sport of field hockey: the corner flyer.
In the midst of the clash of legs and sticks which defines the penalty corner, the flyer must, several times in a game, sprint 16 yards from the end line to the top of the circle, towards a shooter positioned and ready to smash the hard plastic field hockey ball at upwards of 60 miles an hour.
Harvilla is one of the best at her craft. When she defends corners, she is off the endline like a gunshot, accelerating to top speed, getting to the shooter in six or seven steps with her stick low, ready to block the shot. And, more often than not, she stops opposing shooters cold.
"I think that's my secret," Harvilla says. "I'm short, and I get low to the ground."
For the last two seasons, she has been not only one of the best corner flyers in the state, but in the country. What makes her the nation's toughest corner flyer is the willingness to go headlong towards danger.
"I get the biggest rush from flying, and it is the best feeling," Harvilla says. "In a sense, when you fly, it's like you earned a point for your team, because they could have scored, and you took it away."
Unlike many top-level players in her sport, she remains cognizant of the quality and personality of her opponent. However, whether the striker is big or small, national-team caliber or rookie, she goes hard every time.
What is also remarkable is Harvilla's willingness to play through injury. In the 1997 season, her courage shone in a game played at Newtown George School (Pa.).
She started the game coming off a mild ankle sprain and a seperated rib. She did not start the game wearing the recommended flak jacket which protected the ribcage from further injury.
Once entering the game, she was her usual aggressive self on corners, expecially seeing that the game was played under international rules, where the ball has to be stopped outside of the scoring circle before a shot on goal.
"I was getting scared because the ball was flying all over the place," Harvilla says. "And the protector makes me look twice as big, twice as scary.
There was, however, more in-game dramatics. A first-half collision with a George player sent Harvilla to the sidelines with a strained hip. After a few minutes of ice, she donned the protective vest, and went back into the action.
In the second half of that game, she collided with a teammate, and went down in a heap with a mild concussion. She missed all of seven minutes before coming back into the game.
This season, you might think she will have developed an aversion to pain because of last year's welts and an broken ankle suffered at the beginning of lacrosse season.
But she is still tough. On this day, she is unwrapping a sore hamstring and nursing a bruised rib, and has received word that she will be donning the aforementioned flak jacket for the next several games for her own protection.
She admits, however, that her flying technique has changed over the past year. Instead of making all-or-nothing banzai runs every time, she is beginning to use her savvy to break up the whole corner, measuring her steps to the corner striker and covering passing angles.
"I'm supposed to take it easy: I'm not as intense as I was," Harvilla says. "I'm not tackling as hard as I used to."
Her grit and determination in the face of injury has even gotten attention from the coaching staff at three-time defending champion North Carolina. She is, however, focused on attending college in the Boston area or at Muhlenberg.
The physical pain she has endured in her field hockey and lacrosse careers was compounded her sophomore year when her father died suddenly.
"It was at the time when I was receiving field hockey awards, and he was so proud that I had blossomed since my freshman year," Harvilla says. "He was so supportive of anything I did. He would give me his opinion, but he would always support me."
Since then, she has leaned heavily on the Peddie field hockey family -- head coach Leigh Wood, teammates, friends -- for encouragement.
"She taught me everything I know," says Harvilla of her head coach. "When I have had my tough times, she was there -- even when I didn't want to play after my freshman year."