Varsity field hockey has arrived in Loudoun County, but there’s still work to be done

[READ ARTICLE IN THE WASHINGTON POST]

The novelty of the scene at Briar Woods was evident only in the players’ faces.

On one side of the field, 25 members of the Heritage field hockey team decked in candy red uniforms giggled through their warm-up shooting routine. On the other, two of Stone Bridge’s 21 white-and-navy clad stick wielders stopped to laugh at a whiff that sent dirt flying over a stationary ball.

Just about anywhere else in the Washington area, this is a totally normal Tuesday evening in September. In Loudoun County, this is unprecedented.

A parent-and-coach-led initiative two years in the making paved the way for varsity field hockey’s long-awaited arrival to the nation’s wealthiest county this fall. Fourteen Loudoun high schools are joining the fray, marking the largest mass entrance of varsity teams since field hockey administrator Joyce Sisson started working at the Virginia High School League in 2002.

While several high schools in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria have provided varsity field hockey since its 1977 VHSL inception, Loudoun had until this year been linked with Prince George’s County as the only major suburban Washington school jurisdictions not to offer it.

About one month into the 2016 season, field hockey players in Loudoun are still adjusting to the rigors of varsity athletics. Some of them had never picked up a hockey stick before August. Others were accustomed to local club teams that only practice once per week, a far cry from the daily training sessions and weekly games in the varsity realm.

“The way that their classes are now, they see their classmates maybe three times a week. This is every stinking day,” Broad Run Coach Meg Dudek said. “Sometimes it gets tiring, and you have to learn how to push through that in order to make practice time and game time successful, not only for them but for the entire team.”

Dudek helped spearhead the movement for varsity field hockey in recent months, though her advocacy for the sport extends back over a decade. The Bethesda native expected to find a job coaching at a local high school when she moved from Rockville to Ashburn in 2000 but was surprised to learn that varsity field hockey didn’t exist in Loudoun.

So, in 2006, she started a youth program.

The Loudoun Field Hockey Association started off with just under 100 girls. Now known as Potomac Field Hockey, Dudek’s program houses the Rapids, one of Loudoun’s two travel field hockey clubs. Among PFH, Metro HC — the area’s other travel club — high school varsity teams and rec leagues, Dudek estimates there are now over 600 girls playing the sport in Loudoun.

Local interest in field hockey spiked in late 2014, when a group of parents began pushing the Loudoun County School Board for recognition. One of them was Laramie Richbourg, whose eighth-grade daughter, Kellen, wants to play college field hockey.

“Without getting into varsity sports, the girls — not just my daughter, but the hundreds of girls that play — are at a disadvantage because they’re not getting those weekly practices,” Richbourg said. “Without the varsity, they really weren’t given the same advantage as other sports.”

Richbourg started a movement called “LoCo for Field Hockey,” summoning support from parents, coaches and high school principals to spark a change. The group rallied more than 100 players and parents decked in spirit wear to attend a school board meeting that December.

That same fall, hundreds of high school and middle school players broke away from PFH to form a rec league called the Loudoun County League (LCL). Eleven teams were divided by high schools to show the board that varsity field hockey was ready and waiting.

“When they broke off and they needed more help from the parents and volunteers, I really think that helped motivate them collectively, because they had a really strong goal and a focus,” Dudek said.

Their efforts came to fruition on May 26, 2015, when the school board voted unanimously that evening to add field hockey as a varsity sport.

Still, the decision came at an unexpected price.

Rather than fully fund field hockey like other varsity sports, the board voted 5-4 last February to make it a tier-two sport. Only students facing economic hardship can receive financial support from the county in that model. In other words, varsity field hockey squads in Loudoun are essentially glorified club teams this fall.

According to LCSB Chairman Eric Hornberger, year-to-year budget shortfalls made board members wary of absorbing the sport’s full price tag. The estimated first-year cost was $570,303 with recurring annual costs of $181,185 for varsity and junior varsity field hockey at the tier-one level. Park View is the lone Loudoun school without a varsity team this fall, because of the price tag.

Field hockey advocates such as Gary Yacura expect the board to change its tune next year. Yacura, the coach coordinator for LCL, said that once parents and coaches pay off all the fixed costs — goal cages, balls, sticks, goalie equipment and more — the board should be more open to handling the smaller recurring costs down the line.

“That’s a blip on the radar,” said Yacura, who has four daughters playing field hockey. “It’s such a small amount, and the return on that investment is enormous.”

In the meantime, the 14 Loudoun teams are conducting bake sales and car washes, selling emblemed stadium blankets and LoCoSaver Discount Cards, anything to offset a first-year cost that Yacura estimates to be about $11,300 for his daughter Gracie’s Stone Bridge team after taking in gate receipts and activity fees.

At the moment, though, players are more concerned about winning games. They represent more than just themselves now.

“It’s really good to just be recognized,” said sophomore Josie Rossbach, the leading scorer so far this season for an undefeated Heritage squad. “People have come up to me in school and talked to me about the team, and it’s just really cool.”

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