Maybe it started out last year as kind of a lark, but it’ s far from that now.
Ali Howard plays on the Rye High School ice hockey team, so Sean Walsh and a few other of Howard’s male hockey buddies talked last year about joining her on the field hockey team.
Only Walsh ultimately did.
Walsh wasn’t a superstar, not even a star, but he contributed and his female teammates embraced him, even agreeing to forego traditional field hockey skirts for shorts to make him feel more comfortable.
Phile Govaert is another story. Like his older sister, Fusine, who is one of Section 1’s top players, Phile spent his early years learning field hockey in the Netherlands, where field hockey is as much a guy’s sport as a girl’s sport.
Here, it’s a different story. There are no local boys high school teams. That’s why Walsh played last year on the previously all-girl Rye varsity team and Govaert on its JV.
If Section 1 is fair, they’ll play again this season.
That, though, appears in doubt.
The boys are in limbo, practicing as part of Rye’s varsity team but still awaiting approval to play in games.
Applications must be filed yearly for boys and girls to play an opposite-gender sport. A Section 1 committee made up of coaches, athletic directors and other school administrators will determine the boys’ eligibility.
Like middle schoolers who want to play on high school teams, high school boys and girls who want to play on opposite-gender teams must take a physical fitness test. But bias is at the heart of that requirement.
Girls must prove they’re skilled, strong and fast enough to play with boys. Boys must prove they’re not too skilled, strong and fast to play with girls.
The built-in assumption is that boys are better and girls need to be protected.
“Backward,” is how Rye coach Emily Townsend Prince describes the thinking and process.
Yes, some (with an emphasis on some) high school boys are stronger and faster than their female counterparts. But even that doesn’t mean those students would dominate on the field of play.
In this case, that question appears moot.
The senior Walsh is tall but built more like a long-distance runner than even a middle school linebacker. Govaert is much shorter and of average weight for the ninth-grade student that he is.
“I don’t think either is at a physical advantage to girls,” said interim Rye athletic director Rod Mergardt, who supports them playing.
Mergardt, who said Rye will accept whatever decision the section makes, leaving any potential challenge to the boys’ parents, pointed out the committee will consider opposing schools’ opinions in addition to the test results.
Townsend Prince is worried. She has heard rumblings the boys may be banned; that, legitimately trying, they may have done too well on the fitness test; that maybe one or both, ran (just as many girls do) a mile in under six minutes. Forget the fact that field hockey is all about starting and stopping and bursts of speed, not running a mile.
“There’s no other opportunity for them to play. It’s not because I want an advantage,” Prince said of placing the boys on her roster. “It’s not like we’re bringing in two ringers,” Prince added.
Field hockey may be the most skill-heavy field sport in high school athletics. That’s one reason Sharon Sarsen, the most successful coach in New York with six straight state championships, tries to introduce Lakeland children to it when they’re still in grammar and middle school.
Out of everyone, Lakeland, which hasn’t lost to a New York opponent since 2008, would potentially have the most to lose were the boys indeed ringers. In last year’s sectionals, Rye came within minutes of upsetting Lakeland, which eventually won in sudden-death overtime.
But ask Sarsen about the boys playing and she says, “I have no problem with it.”
“I think she has enough confidence in her coaching and she has enough confidence in her kids that I think her attitude is just, ‘Bring it on,'” Mergardt said.
That’s probably true. And it’s also probably true that Lakeland’s more concerned about Fusine Govaert and two other Dutch girls on Rye’s roster: senior Anna Rogaar and her sophomore sister, Lotje.
All were introduced to the sport early. Should a committee determine their eligibility and that of other foreign-born students because maybe their backgrounds give them an unfair advantage?
Further, should every girl’s and every boy’s skill and physical ability be tested before they play on teams even within their own gender to ensure a completely even playing field?
“It seems so arbitrary,” Prince said of the litmus test her boys face.
Mergardt points out that girls don’t weather “nearly the restrictions” in playing on boys teams.
So with girls like Howard holding their own or excelling at far more physical ice hockey, the question is, Why is this even a question?
Since it is, Prince would like Section 1 director Jennifer Simmons to visit Rye to meet and see Walsh and Govaert in action.
“I’d like to let her hear from Sean. He just loves the sport,” Prince said.
And Phile? He loves it enough that he played last year in the skirt that was the JV team’s uniform.
He and Walsh laugh about hoping the varsity agrees again to wear shorts.
Hopefully, in shorts or a skirt, they’ll be laughing and playing a month from now.
“I believe this is the right thing,” Prince said.
Yes, the right thing and only fair thing.