In preparation for last weekend’s tournament at Monmouth, the Penn field hockey team spent two days practicing on the AstroTurf fields at Drexel.
In fact, every time the Quakers have an away game on a carpet-like, AstroTurf field — which 68 of 79 Division I programs use at home — they must prepare on the Dragons’ turf.
And sometimes the Red and Blue can’t even schedule time on Drexel’s field.
“We don’t always have the chance to practice on AstroTurf before we play on it,” freshman Amelia Cohen said.
In 2004, Penn replaced the bright green AstroTurf inside Franklin Field with Sprinturf, which has a more natural, grass-like feel and is more common in collegiate sports — except field hockey.
In recent years, AstroTurf has become the overwhelmingly preferred playing surface for the sport, allowing for a more fast-paced game.
Now, Penn is the only Ivy League team and one of just 11 D-I programs without an Astro field.
That fact has driven down the team’s competitiveness — it hasn’t won an Ivy title since 2004 — and even drove away a coach.
“That was one of the reasons that I left Penn,” said Bucknell head coach and former Penn assistant Jeremy Cook, who was in line to take over for former Quakers coach Val Cloud before he left for Lewisburg, Pa., in 2006.
“If [Penn] had a … playing surface that was of a higher standard, I would have probably stuck around.”
Current players were told as recruits that “an AstroTurf field was in the works and … the estimate was the fall of our sophomore year,” sophomore Kyle deSandes-Moyer said.
According to deSandes-Moyer, there were discussions involving a field on top of a hospital parking garage, but those plans fell through due to financial problems.
And when Cohen visited during her senior year of high school, then-assistant coach Megan McGuin told Cohen she would see an AstroTurf field at Penn during her tenure.
Despite major athletic renovations at Penn Park, however, the field hockey team may still be left out.
North Carolina coach Karen Shelton, whose team won the NCAA championship in 2009 and were runners-up in 2010, said she will not play on a surface like Penn’s and hasn’t in about eight years.
“Nobody with a serious program plays on anything but AstroTurf or a carpet surface,” Shelton said. “Any program that wants to be competitive in the sport of field hockey and wants to make a commitment to it — they must have the AstroTurf.”
Both Shelton and Penn coach Colleen Fink attest to the strong correlation between playing surface and program success.
Fink said eight of the 11 teams without AstroTurf fall within the bottom twenty programs.
She also noted AstroTurf is cleaner, faster and perceived to be more competitive.
“We can get to a certain point, but I think there’s a ceiling on how successful you can become,” Fink admitted.
Right now, the Quakers can’t reach that ceiling because the current surfaces compromise their game strategy.
In field hockey, the best game plans involve smart positioning to take advantage of fast ball speed, Bucknell head coach and former Penn assistant coach Jeremy Cook said.
Those plans are carried out on AstroTurf, where the ball moves much more quickly than the players can, so the game becomes mental and possession-based — something Cook thinks Penn should use in its favor.
On FieldTurf — another name for Sprinturf — “foot speed is closer to the ball speed, [and] you can’t do as much,” Cook said. “You can’t play a position game … and take advantage of that in terms of your mental game.”
Corner plays are much different on the two surfaces as well — typical strategies cannot be well-executed on Sprinturf.
“Practicing [corners] on Franklin doesn’t really work,” Cohen said.
Unfortunately for the sport, though, AstroTurf is only preferred in field hockey.
So on the surface, investing in AstroTurf does not seem to be the smart move for Penn.
FieldTurf is softer, safer and more universal than AstroTurf.
Consequently, the Penn Park expansion plans include two fields with Sprinturf surfaces, which will benefit much of the Penn community, including club and intramural sports.
“It’s a great opportunity for our teams to practice and also an opportunity for our intramural kids,” associate director of athletics and facilities Michael Diorka said. “The park was really a vision to make it a destination point that was a little bit more than just going down to athletic fields.”
The varsity lacrosse, tennis and softball teams will all also benefit from Penn Park.
“At some point in the original game plan, the master plan was to have it as a field hockey field, and that’s still a consideration at some point,” Diorka said. “There’s been some discussion about when to build that.”
According to director of athletic communications Mike Mahoney, Penn Park is meant to benefit the “entire community” and the FieldTurf “was determined to give us the best and safest flexibility for the entire university community.”
Penn coach Colleen Fink hopes that after next year, some of the grassy recreational space that is planned can be turned into an AstroTurf field for her team.
Perhaps then, AstroTurf teams would more readily agree to play at Penn, as Fink said it is difficult to find nonconference opponents willing to play on FieldTurf.
That includes Shelton, whose Tar Heels installed a brand new AstroTurf 12 surface — the fastest of its kind — in 2008. She believes the investment in AstroTurf would be worthwhile.
“I realize that you want to meet the needs of many, but what we’re talking about is the preference of many,” Shelton said. “The many can still use what they once used exclusively years ago, which was the AstroTurf … Now it’s preferred that they use [FieldTurf]. It’s not necessary that they do.”
“It’s necessary for us to have AstroTurf. In Carolina, there’s that understanding.”
Does Pennsylvania have that understanding?
It remains unclear. When Franklin Field’s AstroTurf was replaced, there were no plans to replace the surface for field hockey, according to Cook.
For now, deSandes-Moyer and Cohen still wait hopefully.
“If you take away AstroTurf fields — our facilities, where we are, our program — all our resources outweigh other schools,” deSandes-Moyer said. “[AstroTurf] would just add to a complete package and a complete field hockey program.”
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