Tony | Field hockey finally gets opportunity to compete




It’s about time.

The first field hockey-only field in Penn history will be complete with AstroTurf and ready for the Quakers this fall. That means Penn field hockey will no longer remain the only Ivy school without AstroTurf, which is the playing surface for the overwhelming majority of Division I programs.

Penn field hockey has scraped by without AstroTurf for so long now that you can forgive coach Colleen Fink and her players for believing that the level playing field they were guaranteed when construction began on the new stadium in Penn’s River Fields area in May was too good to be true.

“I think [the players] still don’t believe it actually, either,” Fink said. “I’ll walk down to the site and take photos and send them to the girls, and I just think they’re in a state of denial. They don’t believe that when they arrive back on campus, the field will potentially be done.”

But the new field is a reality, and you can go ahead and welcome a new era of Penn field hockey along with it. Because the Quakers’ long field turf nightmare is finally over.

Penn’s lack of AstroTurf held the program down for years, normalizing burdens in scheduling, recruiting and gameplay that other Ivies simply didn’t have to deal with.

Because AstroTurf teams generally do not want to play games on a non-AstroTurf field, Penn has had to dedicate nearly its entire nonconference slate to road games season after season, a costly and draining endeavor. Just 29 of Penn’s 88 nonconference games have been home contests since 2003, which was also the last year in which the Quakers hosted more nonconference games than they traveled for.

It’s a shame that, in the same time span, perennial lvy bottom-dweller Brown has managed to draw vastly more opponents to its own field than Penn. Since 2003, Brown has had to endure more road than home contests on its schedule just once.

Meanwhile, the Quakers were forced to meet at Temple and Drexel’s AstroTurf facilities in order to prepare for the faster play that AstroTurf facilitated in most of their away games.

“We were probably on a different surface almost every other day,” Fink said. “That was a struggle.”

Notice the past tense, though. The Quakers’ new River Fields home has made Penn an inviting destination for field hockey again. Penn is already slated to have a home-and-home series with Maryland that will bring the eight-time NCAA champion Terrapins to River Fields in 2015.

“Hopefully every year we can start having national-level type of teams that’ll draw a great crowd, and that’ll obviously improve our program significantly as well,” Fink said.

What will improve Fink’s program perhaps even more than the greater scheduling ease to come is the higher level of recruits that the new field will attract. Just ask Princeton coach Kristen Holmes-Winn, whose reigning NCAA Champion Tigers have also gone 67-3 in Ivy competition since she took over in 2003.

“I think we have great players, and I don’t think we would attract that level of player if we didn’t have a surface that was consistent with what the top programs in the country are playing with, i.e., the UNCs, Marylands, those schools,” Holmes-Winn said. “I think it’s hard to get top recruits to go to a field surface facility. That’s just the reality of the situation.”

And the reality is that AstroTurf has helped facilitate Princeton’s Ivy dominance. Since switching to AstroTurf in 1995, the Tigers have won an Ivy League Championship 17 of the last 18 seasons after notching just four in its previous 24 years of existence.

Don’t expect such a profound turnaround for Penn, whose overall win-loss record ranks just sixth among Ivies since 2003. But do expect an improved Penn field hockey brand for 2013 and beyond.

“The challenge we seemed to find was when prospective student-athletes had it narrowed down to, say, Penn and another Ivy League school, or another very high-achieving academic school, that could potentially be the deciding factor,” Fink said. “We’re starting to attract more high-level, high-ranking athletes,” Fink said.

And now, high-ranking athletes playing for and against Penn will be safer as well.

“My concern [switching between Franklin Field and AstroTurf] was an overuse and change of surface type thing,” Fink said. “That can be hard on people’s legs, on people’s shins, on people’s feet. One day you’re on AstroTurf, the next day you’re on field turf and vice versa. So we had people with shin splints, nursing stress reactions and things like that.”

“For us to play on field turf, it’s very frustrating,” Holmes-Winn said. “It’s especially tough at the end of the season when we’re preparing hopefully for the NCAA Tournament. You’re always just holding your breath hoping no one gets injured. Because again, it’s a very different feel and a different surface. We’re always a little worried.”

Penn, Princeton and every school positioned to enjoy the AstroTurf safety of the Quakers’ new River Fields home have Ellen Vagelos to thank. Vagelos was the lead donor for the project, committing what Fink called a “pretty significant” pledge on the condition that current and former alumni and parents matched her pledge.

“[Vagelos] and her family have just been amazing through this process,” Fink said. “And if it weren’t for her we would not be having this field.”

But it remains baffling as to why Penn field hockey was allowed to languish as the only AstroTurf-less Ivy program for so long.

Why did Penn Athletics wait until 2011 to conduct a feasibility study for a new field hockey field, 16 years after Princeton moved to AstroTurf?

Why was Penn field hockey allowed to languish as the only AstroTurf-less Ivy program for so long while Penn Athletics focused on more expensive projects like the $8.5 million Shoemaker Green, which cost more than the “couple million dollars” Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky estimated a new field hockey field would?

And why did both the safety and brand of Penn field hockey take a backseat to the $8.5 million Shoemaker Green, a leisure space which cost more than the “couple million dollars” Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky estimated a new field hockey field would cost last year?

It’s a shame field hockey isn’t a higher priority for Penn Athletics, but at least it’s got momentum. The Quakers went 9-8 overall last season, their first winning campaign since 2006. Fink’s program is on an upswing, and perhaps the long overdue new field is perfectly timed for her program’s development as she enters her fourth season at the helm. Princeton is the standard, and the Tigers welcome Penn’s newfound legitimacy.

“We’re super-excited for Penn and for Colleen and for the league that they’re moving to AstroTurf,” Holmes-Winn said. “We think it’s awesome.”

Indeed it is, and eventually it’ll sink in for Fink and her players. When it does, advantageous recruiting, scheduling and preparation won’t be hard to believe in at Penn anymore.

MIKE TONY is a rising senior English and History major from Uniontown, Pa. He is Senior Sports Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at dpsports@theDP.com.

CORRECTION: In the print edition, this article featured a photo of an area of land that was not the River Fields. As such, that photo has been taken down on the online edition.

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