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Why you should give field hockey a chance

Ryan Claxton may not have grown up a field hockey fan but he has become a convert after watching the Blue Devils play.
Ryan Claxton may not have grown up a field hockey fan but he has become a convert after watching the Blue Devils play.

I recently discovered something that shook the roots of my sporting beliefs.

At first I was mildly embarrassed, dismayed and misled by my Rocky Mountain upbringing. I grew up without knowledge of a game that had taken hold on the distant East Coast, and had struggled to spread west of the Mississippi. When I got to Duke, I used words like “boring” and “lame” to hide my ignorance of this fine sport.

But an invitation from a friend and a free Sunday afternoon combined to twist my fate and open my eyes to something I never saw coming.

My discovery? Field hockey is awesome.

Seriously, on a scale of one-to-spectacular, field hockey falls at about an eight. And unlike lacrosse—another sport unknown to the majority of us Westerners—it’s easy to understand. Don’t get me wrong, lacrosse is great to watch and has all the elements of a top-tier spectator sport, but there’s too much going on. After watching lacrosse for three years now, I still don’t understand some of the major concepts, let alone the more intricate workings of the game.

Field hockey is more straightforward. The game is low-scoring, but there’s a noticeable rhythm and flow to the action. There’s no excess of fouls or extraneous rules that need to be enforced every ten seconds. It looks like soccer with sticks. Less whistle-blowing means more play.

That’s not to say there isn’t still the appropriate level of physicality that a sport requires to be spectator-friendly. Not necessarily all-out bodily harm as you might see in football, but it’s undoubtedly a contact sport. Players routinely put themselves in harm’s way, and the spectator can appreciate the occasional collision or penalty corner.

Ah yes, that brings us to the real gift of field hockey. The penalty corner is quite possibly the most exciting play in all of sports. I’d rank it right next to a penalty shot in ice hockey and a kickoff in football. Basically, the attacking team gets a free centering pass from the corner, which it can then turn into a shot on goal with two major stipulations. The first is a restriction on the attacking team that the ball must travel outside the scoring circle and then be brought back into the circle before a shot may be taken. This is generally done in a matter of seconds.

The second obstacle is actually a physical obstacle—the opposing team. Five defenders, including the goalkeeper, must line up behind the end line at least five meters away from the ball. The spectator value comes from the fact that most teams choose to start their defenders inside the goal itself. Then, when the ball is played by the attackers, they essentially charge the shot with the reckless abandon of Clay Matthews.

The first time I saw such an event, I thought those defenders were clinically insane. After watching a few more, I still do. Can you say exhilarating?

The penalty corner is so dangerous that field hockey’s international governing body has instituted a rule that the first shot resulting from a penalty corner may not exceed the height of the backboard, about 18 inches high, when it crosses the goal line. To my knowledge, no other sport is so dangerous that restrictions have to be made on the height at which a ball can travel.

At this point you’re probably asking yourself where you too can expose yourself to such a fantastic event! The answer can be found among the lovely red brick buildings on East Campus. Nestled between Whole Foods and Bell Tower is the best-kept secret of Duke athletics.

These girls are good, really good. And they’re motivated.

Over the past 12 months the Duke field hockey program has experienced a near-total face lift. Many of the core players remain, and assistant coach Jarred Martin returns for his fifth season. Aside from that, the word of the day around Williams Field is “new.” New playing surface, new locker rooms, new head coach, new system, new attitude.

Much like when David Cutcliffe took over the football program three and a half years ago, head coach Pam Bustin has injected new energy into a program that seemed down on itself in recent years. “Giddy” would most appropriately describe the attitude of the seniors at Media Day last week, as if they had just been released from field hockey jail.

“It’s been surprisingly so easy,” senior Tara Jennings said of the transition to a new coaching staff. “And when you have such enthusiastic coaches and an enthusiastic team ready for the change... then it makes it a really easy transition. I think that everyone can say that we were really ready for this change and this transition, so we couldn’t really ask for anything more.”

These Blue Devils put all that enthusiasm on display last Sunday, when I was introduced to the wonderful world of field hockey. With a 6-1 trouncing of Wake Forest in an exhibition game, they certainly caught my attention. In my humble opinion, if you dominate another ACC team from start to finish you must be doing something right.

I was recently asked to name a team to watch on campus this fall. Luckily I made this discovery in time to give my answer, so jump on the bandwagon—I’m driving.


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