THE WEST JERSEY LEAGUE ENDURES, SOMEHOW
By Al Mattei
There has been field hockey in suburban Philadelphia since the early 1910s. Mostly concentrated in the high schools back then, there was not much call for field hockey in the post-collegiate era.
That's where Bess Taylor stepped in. The originator of the first New Jersey varsity team (Haddonfield Memorial) got together with some like-minded people to start an adult league.
The West Jersey League has been playing ever since, in various locations in southwestern New Jersey. These days, the league plays its games on the grounds of Moorestown Middle School.
There, the grass is bumpy, the ground dusty from the use of the fields by children during recess, and by other recreational teams on Saturdays. The goals are old and rusty, the backboards warped. The entire scene looks like it has undergone a full 70 years of wear and tear, though the league has only recently moved to Moorestown.
On this day, Charlotte Heenan, goalkeeper for the Cougars team, and member of several Trenton State College field hockey champions, has suddenly become a groundskeeper. The frame of the goal she is defending looks more like a trapezoid than a rectangle. The boards are out of their slots, and Heenan is trying to keep the goal from collapsing on her.
She only is able to do her work when the Cougars are in the attack end of the field. When the ball is at a safe distance, she turns around and shifts the posts with some effort. With her goalie pads on her, she looks like the classical sculptures of Atlas trying to hold up the earth.
At the other end of the field, Gina Carey-Smith of the Cougars is winding up for a shot on goal. The winner of the 1990 Honda-Broderick award as the best collegiate field hockey player in America, she winds up for one of her legendary long-range blasts. The ball winds up going about five yards.
One wag from the sidelines says, "That's what I do with my seven-iron."
All field hockey leagues in the United States are amateur, but not all play under the aegis of the United States Field Hockey Association, the national governing body of the sport. History might dictate that the league, once the pre-eminent selection location for the senior women's national team, would remain tied to the national federation.
Several years ago, the WJL made a decision which, as it turns out, was ahead of its time. It cut ties with the USFHA, citing the cost which had to be passed onto players.
"The powers-that-be decided that the USFHA wasn't doing enough at our level: their focus was on the Futures program," said Cindy Bookman, an all-star caliber player from the mid-1970s when she played at Willingboro John F. Kennedy (N.J.). "The dues that we were paying weren't coming back to us; there wasn't enough being done at our level to warrant paying dues at that level."
The split between the WJL and the USFHA predates the frustration and cynicism that remains an undercurrent in the American field hockey community when it comes to the Futures program. The rift also shows the unique independent-mindedness which has permeated South Jersey field hockey since the Taylor years.
You can always tell when the Whitebriar Bed & Breakfast team is playing: they always bring lunch. Carol Moore, the proprietor of the riverside institution, brings home-made sandwiches and pasries to the games in an old-fashioned picnic basket. Team members bring lawn chairs and a blanket to the sideline, and everybody sits down to watch.
Carol Moore offers the contents to passers-by.
"Aren't you going to have some?" she asks anyone who will listen. "They're from the bed and breakfast, and they'll only go to waste."
While players, fans, and a small puppy dig in, the Whitebriar team takes the field. The squad plays in the "B" half of the league, where the players are not as serious about winning or losing, but are more interested in having a good time on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
"It's the love of the game that brings people out," says Carrie Moore, one of Moore's twin daughters who plays on Whitebriar. "It is, however, a competitive league, with an 'A' level and a 'B' level."
Carrie and her twin sister Elizabeth Moore played for Rosemont College for four years previous to joining a team in the league sponsored by an electrical supply firm.
"My mother was interested in sponsoring the team, because she saw our interest in playing, and our team needed a sponsor," Carrie Moore said.
On this day, the team not only needed a sponsor, it needed a goalkeeper. Whitebriar is a team large enough to have substitutes, but it didn't have a steady goalkeeper, meaning that the responsibility shifted among team members week by week.
The players have varying degrees of success in the goal cage, whether it is in stopping the ball or even being able to put on the equipment. It took an inordinately long time to get The Whitebriar Goalie Of The Week into her pads and kickers, and she had to sprint to the stroke line while the opposition made its first upfield thrust.
The other team, appropriately called No Substitutes, shoots wide of the fresh goalkeeper.
There are plenty of characters in this quirky league. There are young players with mini-toed sticks and older players with long-toed SportCraft sticks. There are All-Americans, and marginal athletes. There are goalies with no masks, goalies with leather leg guards which look like they were made around 1940.
Oddly enough, the older equipment seems to be more suited to the dusty, rutted fields at Moorestown Middle School. One goalkeeper is trying to clear the ball with her foam moonboots, and is having a tough time doing it. Her sweeper is yelling, quite comically, "We can't use those prissy kicks out here!"
On another field, the Cougars have taken the field. The Cougars are the epitome of the creative free agency the West Jersey League, and much of club field hockey, has. The Cougars are entirely made up of alumnae of Trenton State College, the Division III powerhouse an hour northwest of Moorestown Middle School.
The team has been in existence since the mid-70s, and they have done a good job of securing former players for the team.
"When you get out of school, it is pretty much understood which team you go to," says Kathy Yeager, who plays with hear daughter, Melanie Vasofski, in the league. "She knows my moves and I know hers, and we can give each other that little lift."
Other teams are a collection of friends who have made a field hockey team quite by accident, not necessarily by design.
"It's all pretty much word of mouth," says Elizabeth Moore of Whitebriar.
Perhaps this "word of mouth" understanding is one of the lasting trademarks of the West Jersey League. There is little media coverage of the games, and even fewer passers-by, despite this being one of the longest-lasting field hockey leagues in the world.
"The rewards here seem to be more intrinsic than extrinsic," Yeager said. "Even though you don't win anything for first place, it's still an honor."
And it is with honor and valor by which each game is played. At the end of every game, the players actually shake hands with each other, sincerely congratulating each other for a fine effort: this, as opposed to today's high-fives and mumbled "Good game"s.
Then they gather as a group near the center circle, chanting the same salutation as their foremothers did as many as 60, 70 years ago which rings off the ancient pine trees ringing the field: "Yea, rah, hockey! Thank you, officials."