By Al Mattei


It is the winter of 2000, days after the fears of the Y2K bug proved to be unjustified.

In the town of Tupelo, Miss., Karen Mawk is in her office at the town's Park and Recreation department, working on a schedule for the upcoming intramural sports season, which is being put together by the city and Tupelo High School.

Equipment has been bought and paid for, and a field has been selected, on the upper field hard by the high school's main parking lot.

A field is laid out, with hash marks and scoring circles somewhat in the right places. You can forgive any slight mistakes, since a field like this had never been laid out before in that neck of the woods.

Field hockey, despite the fact that its players tend to have more of a zeal to play than just about any other pastime, has had a hard time breaking out of its roots in the northeast United States. Some efforts, like the 1984 Olympics and various U.S. Olympic Festivals, have created wild enthusiasm for the game in places like Oklahoma, Texas, California, and St. Louis.

Until recently, the deep South has been pretty much impenetrable. There, however, are 17 field hockey-playing varsity schools in a league in Oklahoma and Texas, 10 schools in the Carolinas, more than a dozen in Louisville, Ky., and the nascent program at Bell Buckle Webb School (Tenn.).

Adding a program in Tupelo, Miss., is somewhat unusual; the state has the lowest per-capita income of the 50 states, and like many of its neighbors, does not offer a great variety of athletic outlets. Some 25 years after Title IX, girls' athletic programs in the deep South pale in comparison to those offered to boys.

"From where I grew up, like here, there is a preoccupation with the three major sports -- football, baseball, and basketball," Mawk says. "It's been what everybody's expected to do. But with a rise in leisure education and an emphasis on lifelong fitness, they're opening their minds to different things."

Tupelo's field hockey program is just one component of a full-year intramural program which is run through a three-way partnership between the school, the city, and sponsors like Zach Reed Jr., the proprietor of a chain of department stores.

"He has an interest in helping kids, and he came up with the idea of having an intramural program," Mawk says.

The idea of such a program, to give students not playing a Tupelo varsity sport another athletic outlet, had been in front of the city council and school board for some time.

Then, a rash of school shootings across America began turning some towns into eponyms: Littleton, Colo.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Paducah, Ky. After the disaster at Columbine High in Littleton, the movement to bring more choices to students began to gather steam in town.

Mawk, Cameron, and others began to lay out the plans for the intramural program. In the fall would be Ultimate Frisbee. Spring would be for basketball. That left the winter open for trying something different. Mawk, whose hockey-playing experience is limited, remembered an interesting trait from her gym classes at Church Hill Volunteer (Tenn.).

"The thing about it was that everyone is on an equal playing field, since few of them have ever held a stick before," Mawk says. "You could be the star athlete (in another sport), but you still know as much as the other players."

The program of field hockey is entirely borne of student interest: signups begin in late fall and early winter, before Christmas break. Teams of anywhere from 12 to 14 players are formed, and each roster has to have at least two female players.

As such, the Tupelo program flies in the face of the convention that field hockey is a sport reserved exclusively for women. Indeed, a couple of the teams are formed of groups of "extreme" bicyclists and skateboarders, and has become somewhat accepted by this small section of Generation X.

"A lot of the guys had no idea that this was a college sport, and there are other high schools who play," Mawk says.

Mawk is much more than the the program's coordinator. She is the players'de facto coach, as well as the occasional umpire. Make that very occasional: she allows the players to call their own fouls, similar to Ultimate Frisbee.

"We take each team before the season begins and worked with them, going through some scenarios," she says. "What I try to do is to encourage people to call their fouls and help us. We get the kids involved in their own games in not only calling fouls, but to resolve conflicts among themselves."

That is a life lesson that is not often learned in competitive scholastic sports these days.

"A lot of people were worried about me, saying, 'She's a girl trying to control a whole bunch of other players with sticks.' But they've been wonderful and respectful, and they understand that I have the final authority."

Another life lesson that Mawk is bringing is the concept of breaking down social barriers.

"I remember, when I went to high school, that I knew everybody I graduated with," she says. "Now, I see kids who don't know everybody in their class; they never knew each other until they stepped out onto that field. I found that so amazing."

The field hockey that is being played is not the kind you might find at the higher echelons of world hockey. But, like women's professional football, the expectations cannot be placed unreasonably high on a group of people systematically excluded from a sport for nearly a century. The equipment is new, thanks to donations from Reed, though not top-of-the-line. Still, the response from the community has been nothing short of amazing.

"We had parents come by to watch the games," Mawk says. "And other parents with students in middle school asked when we were going to have programs in middle school."

A youth summer sports camp in town had participants use pillow-polo mallets so as not to hurt each other. And then there is Tupelo's second season, scheduled for January 2001.

"I think it's going to keep growing," Mawk says. "Most of the people who played (in 2000) were the sophomores and juniors. In this area, we have a huge interest in it." 1