Olympic Youth Camps aim to boost youth interest in field hockey

Aug. 04, 2014, 6:04 p.m. (ET)

*Courtesy of philly.com

Eliza Pentz picked up her first field hockey stick about the time that most children are learning to count by twos. The Radnor teenager was 6, and her mother had played the game before her.

But not all potential youth athletes have field hockey in their DNA, so the sport's governing body is taking its own steps toward early recruitment.

USA Field Hockey has started a national summer-camp program aimed at growing a sport that is played in the United States mostly by females - and that competes with overseas programs that train athletes who start swinging sticks at age 3.

The organization hosted the inaugural sessions of the four-day camps at five sites on the East Coast this week, including Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School in Montgomery County.

U.S. National Team athletes and Olympians are working as teachers and mentors at the Youth Olympic Camps, which will be offered annually.

"The goal is to get quality coaching and for the campers to see what they can become through field hockey," said Cyndie Slagle, founder of the Colonial Field Hockey Club, who is helping to coach at the local camp.

Other sessions were in Pittsburgh; Providence, R.I.; and Rochester and Utica, N.Y which is open to boys and girls.

The camp's locations will change annually in an effort to market the sport beyond its East Coast hub. Eastern players, particularly from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, routinely have made the Olympic and U.S. National Teams.


USA Field Hockey is beginning the effort at a time when excitement is growing for a sport similar to ice hockey but played on grass or artificial turf. In June, the Women's National Team, chock full of local players, finished fourth at the Rabobank Hockey World Cup in The Hague, Netherlands.

At Victory Field in Plymouth Township, athletes Torrie Albini, 28, who retired this year from the National Team, and Meghan Beamesderfer, 26, drilled 14 campers, ages 9 to 13, as they scooted across the turf maneuvering their hockey sticks in a series of exercises.

Beamesderfer and Albini live in Lancaster. Last year, the U.S. National Team moved from California to Manheim, Lancaster County, to train at the Spooky Nook Sports facility in what is a regional hotbed for the sport.

While field hockey is primarily a female pursuit in the United States, men dominate in other parts of the world where the sport is extremely popular, including India, Pakistan, and parts of Europe.

Last month, the PIAA restricted boys' participation on mostly girls' teams in what officials say is an effort to encourage the growth of all-boys teams and expand playing opportunities for girls.

USA Field Hockey hopes to help raise awareness of the sport and cement allegiance among the young - and younger.

"A lot of our youth get involved in [field hockey] in high school or junior high," said Laura Darling of Moorestown, USA Field Hockey's former National Development Director. "You look at soccer and see 5-year-olds running around playing. And soccer has leagues all over. We are starting to develop some leagues."

Slagle, whose Colonial Club is affiliated with USA Field Hockey, founded the group five years ago when her daughter had no local group with which to play.

Parents are leaning toward picking one sport for their children instead of multiple ones as in the past, said Marianne Paparone, longtime field hockey coach at Plymouth-Whitemarsh.

"They pick it early," Paparone said, "and if they don't pick field hockey, [the sport] gets shortchanged."

On the field, camper Pentz, 13, ran drills with fellow players including Hailey Copestick, 10, whose grandfather Frank watched from the bleachers.

"I didn't even know anything about field hockey until my granddaughter started playing," said Frank Copestick, of Plymouth.

After a few morning hockey exercises, Hailey said she "loves the sport" and thinks others would agree.

"If they just knew more people who played," Hailey said, "then maybe they would want to play, too."

With that, the Colonial Elementary fifth grader snapped in her mouth guard, grabbed her stick, and sprinted toward the action.