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Coexist in harmony

The Baltimore Sun

To Nick Borsh, field hockey has never been a girls sport.

He learned to play in the first grade along with everyone else at the Mater Amoris Montessori School in Ashton. As soon as he saw the older boys and girls scrimmaging, he wanted to play, too.

"I knew a lot of guys played," said Borsh, 11. "I just really liked the whole game, the action, the mentality of it. I don't know exactly why, I just found a love for it."

On fall mornings, you can find girls and boys playing together on the small turf field at Mater Amoris, just over the Howard County line in Montgomery County. It's one of the few places locally where girls and boys coexist on the hockey field, but it's routine for these kids.

"It's just kind of natural because when we first started, we were playing against the boys," said Kallie Drewyer, 11. "Everybody says, 'You play coed?' and we're like: 'Yeah. It's not any different.' "

From the moment they start playing at 5 or 6 years old, these youngsters learn much more than stick skills. John Kovach, a former national team player who started the Mater Amoris Ocelots field hockey program 10 years ago, gives them a global perspective on the game. Around the world, it is a hugely popular sport for men.

While Ocelots girls such as Drewyer and Maya Belin, who already play on club teams, look forward to high school and, maybe, college field hockey, Borsh and the other boys do not have those options.

"I don't think the boys lose interest, because it's been so much a part of their life, but the opportunity just isn't there," said Kovach, 51. "They go to other schools, and the other boys have no frame of reference. They think it's a girls sport, so they're fighting that, and it takes a real special kid who can overcome that, who has set a goal."

Once they leave Mater Amoris after sixth grade, boys have only one place to play - the DC Dragons club team, based in Rockville.

"I would definitely like to keep playing, but mostly, boys don't play in schools," said 9-year-old George Drewyer, Kallie's brother.

Luke Chopper, a former Ocelot now a freshman at River Hill, would like to see that change. He wanted to try out for the team at River Hill this fall, but field hockey is designated as a girls sport in Maryland public schools, so he was not allowed to play.

Howard County officials cited Title IX and safety issues as the reasons boys are not allowed on girls teams. Kovach said he would like to see more grass-roots growth here as there is in California, where the sport has a thriving club scene. Men play and pass the game on to their sons.

Kovach and Tee Goh, who runs the Dragons, are the ones keeping the game alive for boys here.

Goh, a native Malaysian, has an under-16 boys team as well as a men's club team. He is also trying to build an under-12 team and has nine boys in training for that.

Limited opportunities and the stigma of field hockey as a girls sport make it difficult to draw boys into the sport and to keep the ones who try it, said Goh, 52.

"Sometimes, it's just easier to go play baseball or basketball," he said, "so one of my goals is to get enough boys together to have our own little league here and give them the opportunity to play.

"I think the sport just needs someone to champion it, mainly because the infrastructure isn't there," he said. "It's not like the soccer associations, where you have 10,000-20,000 players in the area. We're lucky if we have a couple of hundred. It really requires someone who's focused on the boys to find a way for them to play and to provide training."

For Kovach, 51, whose parents founded Mater Amoris, the Ocelots are a small step in that direction. He uses field hockey as the physical-education program for all grades, first through sixth.

"I just thought it was important to try to enlighten people a little bit," said Kovach, also the assistant coach at Towson University.

"Because of my involvement with U.S. field hockey, I knew there was really a great need in this area to try to promote the game for both girls and boys, and I saw this as a real golden opportunity to do that even in our own small way."

While there is no league play for the Ocelots, Kovach selects a team of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to play in tournaments a few times a year. The highlight is the California Cup, a four-day festival each May featuring more than 140 boys, girls, men's, women's and coed teams from around the world.

Twice, Ocelots teams have come away with gold medals. In May, they finished fourth of the 14 teams in the under-13 coed division.

For many of the boys, the Cal Cup is their introduction to men's field hockey.

"The speed of the game and how hard they can hit it is just really amazing," Borsh said. "The Cal Cup is really huge, and I liked how people from [Taiwan] and all over the world come to this one tournament."

While the Ocelots have sent a number of girls to Division I college programs, including Towson's Christina Boarman, a former All-Metro player at St. Paul's, Duke's Samantha Nelson and Wake Forest's Julia Young, they also have turned out a couple of the nation's top junior boys.

Andrew Zayac and Alex Grassi are competing for the U.S. team this week at the Junior Pan American Championship in Trinidad and Tobago.

But getting there for the boys is much tougher.

Zayac, a 20-year-old Columbia resident, made the national under-16 team when he was 11. That put him on the fast track to the junior and senior national teams. To stay on that path, Zayac estimates he has made about 100 trips to California for training.

While Kovach honed his skills in clubs in Washington fed by foreign-born men from embassies and the World Bank, by the time Zayac came along, there were no club teams other than the Dragons.

"I've been stuck with scraping for what I can get," said Zayac, a junior at Maryland. "For the past few years, I've been driving to Richmond once a month where there's a pick-up game with some college girls and some old-school guys. The best I can get is really older people or college alumni who still want to play just pick-up games."

Zayac often has to drive three or four hours for a game. Last year, he and his college roommate drove to New York every Sunday to play in a league.

"It's tough," he said. "It's hard to play a sport where you have to put a whole day into playing one game."

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