Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Field Hockey, Then And Now

As TigerBlog stood up on the walkway outside the press box that faces onto both Sherrerd Field and Bedford Field Sunday afternoon, he looked off to his right - and back nearly 30 years.

When he first started covering Princeton sports for the newspaper, he worked for someone named Harvey Yavener, who, as TB has written several times before, was a legendary local sportswriter for a long, long time around here. It's likely that nobody ever wrote more column inches about Princeton sports in a newspaper than Harvey Yavener.

As TigerBlog has also said, Yav was way ahead of his time when it came to the coverage of women's athletics. During years when your average male sportswriter outwardly mocked the notion of writing about "girls' teams," Yav was out there on the campuses of the five colleges he and TB covered - Princeton, Rider, Rutgers, Trenton State (now the College of New Jersey) and Mercer County Community College - covering women's sports of all kinds, interviewing women athletes from all those sports.

To Yav, games were games. The biggest football game equaled the biggest crew race which equaled the biggest track meet. It didn't matter how many people were in the stands. It didn't matter what gender the athletes were. A big game was a big game.

Today, at places like Princeton, that thinking is commonplace and just how it is. Back then, it was unique.

There were a handful of women's sportswriters that TB knew, and they almost all covered women's sports. It wasn't until there was crossover, when a male writer like Yav covered women's games, that there began to be steps towards equality of coverage.

When TB first started working with Yav, he covered football and men's basketball, but he was sent to events where there would be no other male writers, other than those from the school papers themselves. He'd often be the lone writer - male or female - at the front end of a women's/men's basketball doubleheader, for instance.

In fact he'd often be the only writer at events, especially women's events. TB knows for sure that those experiences helped him develop the sense of equity that has dominated his experience here in the Office of Athletic Communications all these years.

And that's what he was thinking about as he watched the game field hockey Sunday between Princeton and the No. 1-ranked UConn Huskies. How he first watched field hockey, back when Beth Bozman was first building Princeton into the national powerhouse that it has remained ever since.

Princeton used to play its games on Gulick Field, which was a grass field that was elevated above Lourie-Love Field, the old home of Princeton soccer. Today Plummer Field, part of Roberts Stadium, sits where Gulick once did, though it is level with Myslik Field, as opposed to up on a hill.

Field hockey on grass was a much different game, and still is, if you watch it on the high school level. Gulick Field was a nice place to watch a game, as was Lourie-Love, but there were zero frills involved.

Contrast that experience with what field hockey looks like now at Princeton, and you have something that is radically different.

Bedford Field is a beautiful facility with the most pristine artificial turf you will ever see. The stands Sunday weren't packed, but there was a nice sized crowd to watch the game, even on a rainy day.

As for the on-field product? The level of athleticism in field hockey has skyrocketed through the years, helped along by a few factors: more players, way better facilities and equipment, much greater strength and conditioning by the players, better coaching on the younger levels and a change in athletic culture that has encouraged girls to pursue their athletic dreams the same way boys do.

If you hadn't seen field hockey since its days on Gulick Field, you might not have recognized it Sunday. The game is incredibly fast, and the players combine speed and strength with an amazing amount of skill.

It's a complex game, with some interesting rules, but it's easy to pick up. And you have to love that there is no offsides rule at all.

And even if you'd never seen the sport before, you could tell that the UConn-Princeton game was one on a very high level.

Prior to the game, there was one number that instilled fear of the Huskies, and it wasn't their national ranking of "one." It was the number "12," as in the number of goals UConn had put up in a 12-0 win over Villanova last Friday.

UConn then scored quickly against Princeton and built it to 2-0 in less than 10 minutes. Would this be another massive blowout? Hardly.

Princeton came back and tied it at 2-2, and in fact the Tigers spent much of the game taking it to the No. 1 team in the country. UConn would break Princeton's heart with three second half goals for a 5-2 lead, but the Tigers would get one back before falling 5-3. In all it was very respectable.

And entertaining.

Princeton is 6-6 on the year now, as it prepares to play at Brown and at Northeastern this weekend. Don't let Princeton's record fool you - the Tigers have played the toughest schedule in Division I field hockey.

Princeton is also 3-0 in the Ivy League, as is Harvard, also ranked in the Top 20. Princeton will be at Harvard one week from Saturday for a massive game. If you remember last year, Princeton reached the NCAA Final Four, but it was actually Harvard who won the league. Princeton got an at-large bid to the tournament and then took full advantage.

TigerBlog watched the second half of the game Sunday from field level, at the scorer's table. The game was even faster from that perspective. 

TigerBlog loves that he has the perspective of what women's sports were like when he first started covering them compared to how they are now. He came along about 10 years after the prehistoric age of Princeton sports, when the real pioneers who had to establish the beginnings of women's sports here participated, but he's seen enough to really appreciate the growth that has occurred.

It was all on display for him Sunday. Right in front of him, with the game on the field, and across the roadway and back a few decades, to how it used to be.


Anonymous said...

Three completely unrelated points:

(1) UConn field hockey is 13-0 on the season and has given up only ten goals all year. Not only is Princeton's three-goal output the most UConn has given up in 2017, it's 30% of the Huskies' cumulative total.

(2) Field hockey conducts overtime with only seven players per team, instead of a full eleven during regulation. This is such a simple and elegant rule that it is ridiculous soccer does not do the same thing. Fewer players opens up the field and makes a decisive goal much more likely.

(3) Princeton men's athletics has a long, proud and very successful tradition. But it's in the women's sports where we really put distance between ourselves and the other Ivies. Interestingly though not surprisingly, Harvard -- our only genuine long-term rival for Ivy athletic supremacy -- is also very strong in women's sports.

The math is pretty simple. Both Princeton and Harvard have excellent men's programs, but the two are absolutely dominant on the women's side. Therefore, none of the other six Ivies can get close overall.

Check out some of these ridiculous numbers. In particular, take note of the academic year ending in 2016, when Princeton with 10 and Harvard with 7 combined to win 17 championships when the Ivy League only sponsors 16 women's sports. The anomaly is created by Princeton-Harvard co-championships in fencing and volleyball.

Approached another way, in 2016, Princeton and Harvard won every single women's title except basketball. And the Tigers came pretty close to tying for a co-championship in hoops as well.


2017 . . . 6 . . . 7
2016 . . .10 . . . 7
2015 . . . 5 . . . 6
2014 . . . 5 . . . 7
2013 . . . 7 . . . 3
2012 . . . 3 . . . 6
2011 . . . 8 . . . 1
2010 . . . 7 . . . 2
2009 . . . 6 . . . 6
2008 . . . 5 . . . 3

Total. . .62 . . .48

Princeton women's sports are the secret sauce.

Anonymous said...

In fairness to the Princeton men's athletics programs, while the women are superlative, it's actually the men which are more consistent in beating Harvard. In other words, Princeton women are half of a duopoly which rules Ivy sports for those with two X chromosomes, but the Tiger men are more likely to beat the Crimson year in and year out.

Over the past dozen years, judging by Ivy championships won, Princeton women against Harvard are 7-4-1, while the men in orange and black are a staggering 10-1-1.