For Nadia Clendening, running field hockey drills on Centennial's Bermuda grass field feels just like dribbling the ball on the carpet in her room.
"It's so easy to hone your skills on Bermuda grass," said the senior All-Howard County forward. "It's so predictable. You can learn sweeps and reverse sweeps. You can't do that on other grass. It's too bumpy. It's wonderful to have a [surface] that you can really use your skills."
In the past decade, the skill level of high school players has improved so drastically that the playing field has become critical. The game isn't hit-and-run any more, it's all about intricate stick skills and precise passes.
The area's top players spend much of the off-season honing their skills in the U.S. Field Hockey Association's Olympic-development style Futures program, on Team Maryland, in indoor leagues, at college summer camps and/or in the Roland Park reduced-player league -- all of which are conducted on artificial turf or on Bermuda grass.
When most of these girls get back to school, they don't have those fast, predictable surfaces. Many of them are playing on fields shared with other sports through the year.
When the field surface isn't smooth, the entire strategy of the game can change. That leaves skilled players at a disadvantage.
"I have to think about different things," said Clendening, a Team Maryland player. "I'm worried about is the ball going to go where I want it to go rather than how hard should I hit it or at what angle. It's kind of taking a step back from my actual skill level."
Playing on a field with high grass, divots, clumps or dirt patches can take away the better team's edge.
"It penalizes the more skilled team and the quicker team," said Roland Park coach Debbie Bloodsworth, who has a home Bermuda grass field. "There's so many undercut balls because the ball doesn't move. It gets dangerous. The people with stick skills can't do what they're able to do. There's no momentum, no flow. It just isn't hockey as it was meant to be."
Howard County and Anne Arundel County are in the process of giving every school its own Bermuda grass field. Eight of 11 Howard schools have the Bermuda surface, as do nine of 12 in Anne Arundel County. A handful of private schools also have them.
Schools in Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties have hockey fields on campus, but they do not have Bermuda grass. Neither does Goucher College, the site of the state semifinals and final. Some Carroll and Anne Arundel teams play night games on their stadium fields.
In Howard County, the push toward smoother fields emerged from a Title IX complaint in 1992, said Don Disney, supervisor of athletics for the county's public schools.
In the 1980s, the hockey teams were moved to better fields off-campus, but because all the boys sports were kept on campus, Disney said, the hockey teams had to come home.
"If we were going to make this commitment to field hockey, why not give them the best fields we could?" Disney said.
As a result, field hockey in the county has improved tremendously in the past few years. It is also a bigger draw. More girls in the county now play field hockey than any other sport except lacrosse, Disney said.
But Bermuda grass fields, almost all of which include built-in irrigation systems, are not an option for every school or every school system. The price tag is just too high.
The newest field in Anne Arundel County, at Chesapeake High, cost almost $25,000 and that was with nearly all of the work done in-house, said Bill Reinhold, athletic grounds program manager for the county schools.
"Compared to neighboring subdivisions, we haven't gone out on a expensive limb," said Jill Masterman, supervisor of athletics for the Baltimore County Public Schools. "That's not to say our kids aren't worth it, but where is that money going to come from? We're trying to do the best we can with what we have, and that's just not a priority right now."
Bruce Cowan, supervisor of athletics for Carroll County schools where students must pay $60 to play each sport, agreed. "[A Bermuda grass field] would be nice to have if we could afford it, but there are a whole lot of things we need to afford before we get to Bermuda fields."