Bridging the Gap

April 25, 2013, 12:01 p.m. (ET)

Suzanne Albanese, a physical education teacher at Our Lady of Sorrows School in Mercer County, N.J., has developed a passion for guiding students to active lifestyles.  As a field hockey umpire since 1995 and as a University of Delaware hockey alum, Albanese entwined her favored sport into her courses.

“I’ve been teaching for seven years and I always incorporate two units of field hockey into the syllabus – indoor and outdoor,” said Albanese.

Although unfamiliar to some of the students, the gap from questioning to craving is soon filled in.

“By the end of the units, the kids tell me that they want to play all year long.”

Because Our Lady of Sorrows was selected as a host site for USA Field Hockey’s FUNdamental Field Hockey program, the school was awarded with hockey equipment to grow the game. Running off of the enthusiasm of her students and vigor for the sport, Albanese took a bold move.

She began handing out flyers.

As an umpire for the 2013 National Indoor Tournament in Richmond, Va. Albanese wanted to see if any of her students would be interested in playing in the competition.

“I need to go,” said 10-year-old Nick Wilke to his parents. The freckled-faced fifth grader was introduced to field hockey by Albanese three years ago and steadily began to improve his stick skills as a forward.

The flyer also fell into the hands of sixth-grader Henry Kelly who was eager to apply what he learned in gym class into a real game.  A forward as well, Kelly wanted to explore the sport on another level.  

And with that, Albanese, Kelly and Wilke left after school a day before the tournament  - packing the car with an ump whistle, shin guards and pure excitement. Kelly and Wilke were on the roster for the U16 Boys Kung Fu squad.

“The parents were just so supportive and entrusting. It was a wonderful leap of faith - to do something that is so different from the norm than traditional sports,” said Albanese.

The tournament for the newbies started out strong – with Kelly scoring his first goal in his first game and Wilke securing an assist in his second match. With each game, the boys’ confidence and ball control grew. Both were eager to learn more and improve. Kelly recognized and adjusted the distance between himself and his guard. Wilke had perfected his timing for a dynamite block tackle. The boys kept progressing with each of the team’s victories until they wound up on the ceremony stage with a first place medal around their necks.

“Everything about the tournament was just amazing,” said Kelly. “This was a real once and a lifetime opportunity.”

From that weekend on, the boys shared something in common with their newly bought hockey sticks – they were hooked.  

“I don’t think the boys have put down their sticks from the first game,” said Albanese. “I was told Nick was practicing in the living room before bed and his mother had to wrestle stick out of his hands.”

Sporting grins brighter than the medals that were displayed around their necks Kelly and Wilke came into school wearing their accomplishment with pride – even when a few whispers began to spread.

“Oh some of the kids were saying field hockey is for girls,” said Albanese. “What do you call them - sour grapes? Well there were quite a few sour ones in the group. You could tell they wanted medals too but were taking it out the boys.”

Albanese strategized. The next day, she brought in her 16-year-old son James to bring those whispers to a mute. With stick in hand, James weaved throughout the gym floor, showing off the arsenal he learned from his club team while enlightening the class that boys have a place in field hockey.

“This isn’t just a blonde-haired girl in a ponytail type of game,” said Albanese. “We need both genders to play if we want to expand the sport.  We need to change the way people think.”

Although change to this measure takes time, Albanese may be on to something much, much bigger than a spontaneous road trip. The proof is the question Wilke posed to his mother after only a taste of the sport.

“So where around here can I play field hockey?”