BY JEFF FALK
Change and Choice.
We probably shouldn’t second-guess either, because both are inevitable.
This fall, due to change, more than 20 female student-athletes across Lebanon County were faced with a choice. What they were left to choose between was better and best.
So did they make the correct choice? It is a question that only they, and time, can answer.
In scholastic athletic circles, there are few sports more similar than field hockey and girls’ soccer. But due to a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association decision, more than a few local athletes were forced to choose between the two.
For the first time in this area, and for a variety of reasons, girls’ soccer has been moved to the fall sports season. That move provided a direct conflict with its well established and older cousin – field hockey.
“It made me cringe,” said Palmyra coach Kristi Harshman-Costello, who heads the most successful field hockey program in the county. “I was really disappointed when I first heard about it. We’re a small school. We have to share athletes. My field hockey players gained a lot from being soccer players. Now kids have to choose at a younger age and some skills aren’t being developed. But soccer complements field hockey so well.”
“At first, I was kind of like it’s going to be really hard from a scheduling aspect,” said Cedar Crest head field hockey coach Dana Risser, a former Olympic player. “The number of sports in the fall for girls was already so high. As coaches, we expected it to be more of a big deal. Our athletic director has done a phenomenal job with scheduling and field usage.”
The full impact of girls’ soccer’s move to the fall will likely be felt in four or five years. Because the PIAA had made the move public a few years ago, many of the affected athletes were prepared and chose their sport in advance.
But conventional thinking says that due to the popularity of soccer nation-wide that eventually it will erode field hockey’s numbers.
“We’ve got another year until things settle,” said Terry Johnston, Lebanon High’s field hockey coach and athletic director. “The jury’s still out on girls’ soccer going back to the spring. I’d like to think we’re going to be OK. But our middle school numbers aren’t good. But they’re not better in girls’ soccer.”
“It’s a big issue,” said Elco head field hockey coach Lisa Kercher. “We were lucky enough not to lose a single player. Two of our starters, Becky Lynch and Paige Spangler, and our freshman goalie, were soccer players. It’s a big deal, without a doubt. We had meetings with parents and with soccer parents.
“The girls are torn,” Kercher continued. “Becky Lynch wants to be part of that soccer team that she’s been with for 12 years. But they’re committed to field hockey.”
“I don’t think we’ve felt the impact of it yet,” said Sue Felty, the head field hockey coach at Annville-Cleona. “It’s early. We won’t feel the biggest brunt of it this year. Everyone’s really concerned. Some teams don’t have JV teams. Hockey coaches are talking about what kind of youth programs they’re going to run. Girls’ soccer programs start so early, and we have to do the same thing.”
Relatively speaking, girls’ soccer is a newcomer on the scholastic sports’ scene. When it was first instituted in the 1990s, not everyone fielded a girls’ soccer program and the PIAA conducted two state championship tournaments, one in the fall and one in the spring.
The move of girls’ soccer to the fall is partly designed to unify those state championships into one. Also, parents of girls’ soccer players in the spring contended that their student-athletes weren’t afforded the same opportunities at college scholarships that their counterparts in the fall were.
“Where I’m seeing the soccer effect is in the younger girls,” said Harshman-Costello. “I only have four freshmen in the program. The younger kids are going to start choosing younger. Ultimately, our middle-school program will be affected.”
“Between the high school and the middle school, I’d say seven or eight girls were forced to choose,” said Johnston. “We lost a couple, but many stayed with us. What has also affected Lebanon is we have a brand new girls’ soccer coach. We’re (field hockey) a known quality. I think that played a role.
“The big thing for Lebanon is that there’s so much going on in the fall,” Johnston added. “Girls’ soccer didn’t have a whole lot of competition in the spring. Now that the girls are choosing between a couple of sports at Lebanon, girls’ soccer took a hit.”
“Actually, we weren’t really hurt by it,” said Risser, who coaches at the largest school in Lebanon County. “We have some kids who played soccer before, but didn’t have to decide between the two. We don’t have anyone who we lost or gained from soccer.
“A lot of teams at smaller schools were affected by it,” Risser continued. “At our school, a lot of kids play lacrosse or run track in the spring.”
But one important thing to keep in mind is the number of opportunities to play each sport in college. There, field hockey has a huge advantage over girls’ soccer, at least locally.
World-wide, the United States is much more competitive in women’s soccer than it is in women’s field hockey. Nationally, women’s soccer is much more popular than field hockey. But at colleges that sponsor both sports, there are similar opportunities for scholarships for student-athletes.
The central Pennsylvania area, of which Lebanon County is a part, is one of the so-called ‘hotbeds’ for competitive field hockey in the country, partly because the sport is not played everywhere in the United States. Over the years, Lebanon County student-athletes have earned more Division One scholarships from playing field hockey than any other sport – combined.
“Absolutely,” said Kercher. “If you watch the Olympics, look at the United States women’s team, a lot of the players were from right here – Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey. This area is where college recruiters come to recruit. They know this is where the good players are.
“One of our girls knows there’s scholarships in hockey,” Kercher added. “That’s where the scholarships come from.”
“Fortunately, the club soccer program is so strong that a lot of kids are playing all year and recruitment is happening during the club season,” said Harshman-Costello, herself a former Division One field hockey player. “I don’t think the soccer season is recruited as highly as the field hockey season.”