MADISON, N.J. — Melissa Zurawiecki has been involved with the South Plainfield field hockey program for a long time. She played for the Tigers, and is going into her sixth season as the head coach.
But when asked about changes in the game she has loved since childhood, Zurawiecki thought about her own coach, Fran Flannery. Flannery never played field hockey, but helped launch the South Plainfield program in the 1970s, not long after Title IX passed.
“She was learning from books and clinics,” Zurawiecki said as her team prepared to participate in the 18th annual preseason “play day” at Madison High School, which took place on Saturday.
“We never believed she never played, because she had so much knowledge of the game. Because she was so demanding and had such high expectations, it allowed our program to grow.”
Organized by Northeast Chapter II of the New Jersey Field Hockey Officials Association, the play day has doubled in size to 12 schools, each of which brought varsity and JV teams. With perennial powerhouses like Oak Knoll, West Essex, and Bridgewater in the lineup, it serves as a tough preseason test for both players and umpires.
“This is my favorite day of the year,” said Richard Smith, who has been coaching field hockey at Northern Highlands for 24 years — half his life.
“The facility is great. It’s a low-pressure environment. We get to play all these really good teams. The quality of the teams is very good. It’s a good challenge for everybody.”
Growing the game
Though estimated to be the third most popular sport, with more than two billion fans worldwide, field hockey has been slow to catch on in the United States.
Though traditionally played by men, Constance Applebee introduced the sport via a tour of American women’s colleges in the fall of 1901.
The long-time athletic director at Bryn Mawr, Applebee was instrumental in the sport’s growth in Philadelphia and south Jersey. Field hockey slowly worked its way north, with the first club team — New Jersey Spirit — launched in Chatham in 1990. Now, there are about 30 clubs around the state, which veteran official and former River Dell coach Lesley Loeb said has “changed the complexion of coaching, because they learn what they need at the club, and you refine it.”
Though the Bergen County club Loeb co-founded folded in 2006, Smith noted the weekly fall league for players from Allendale, Ho-Ho-Kus, Upper Saddle River and Saddle River — Northern Highlands’ sending districts — as young as fifth grade. Ho-Ho-Kus also has a middle school field hockey team, so “there’s a lot of experience and knowledge.”
Though most Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference schools offer field hockey, there are only eight teams in Bergen County, eight in Middlesex County, and seven in Essex County. Though more schools added teams in the early 1970s after the passage of Title IX, some folded 10 or 15 years later during budget cuts or as other sports attracted more players.
Field hockey is No. 8 among girls sports in New Jersey, but does not rank in the top 10 nationwide in terms of either school or total athlete participation, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. There have been around 220 field hockey programs in New Jersey high schools since the 2002-03 school year. The total number of players has fluctuated from as low as 7,385 in 2010-11 to 9,605 in 2003-04.
“It’s a stress reliever for me,” said Rumson senior center back Maeve Hierholzer, who has verbally committed to Lehigh. “At school, you have eight periods a day. You can get out on the field and just let it go.”
Kim Villano and her twin sister grew up playing field hockey at Chatham Township High School, which won five straight NJSIAA North 2 Group I titles from 1983-87, and then at Wesley College in Delaware. She recalled college coaches coming to the high school and saying, “I want her.” This summer, Kim Villano and her daughter, Madison junior goalkeeper Charlotte Villano, traveled to prospect camps across the United States.
There are 40 New Jersey alumni playing NCAA Division I field hockey this fall, according to Charles Brocato, the Northeast Chapter II president.
“It’s been my passion all these years. That’s why I’m still part of it,” said Anita Blomberg, an official since 1967 who grew up playing field hockey in The Netherlands, and then Montclair State University.”(Title IX) encouraged more girls to come out. It’s encouraged more men, as well as women, to coach because the salaries were raised. Better coaching meant better players and better teams. The game is faster. It’s more exciting to watch. It’s more spectator friendly.”