Two friends stick with their goal of starting field hockey clubs at City, Poly

Two friends start field hockey clubs at rivals City and Poly.

It was the sort of abstract promise we all make to our kids, figuring the circumstances in question will never come to fruition.

Sure, Kate MacDonald told her daughter Sloane, if you scrape together a field hockey program at City College, I'll serve as the coach.

"Honestly, I was not thinking she'd ever get it going," MacDonald says.

Field hockey carries a long tradition as a fall pursuit at many private schools in the Baltimore area, but it's not an official varsity sport at any of the city's public schools. Sloane MacDonald, a sophomore at City, and her buddy, Hannah Greene, a sophomore at rival Poly, are trying to change that. The pair missed field hockey so much as freshmen that they resolved to fill the vacuum.

As a result, nascent clubs have begun play at both schools over the last few months.

And now Kate MacDonald is staring at a pack of teenagers in purple and orange pullover jerseys, whacking an orange ball around an overgrown softball field at the edge of City's campus in East Baltimore. The tentative slashes suggest how unfamiliar hockey sticks remain to many of these girls. But the spirit is ebullient.

"What are these for?" sophomore Shatera McNair says, holding up her stick to punch home the joke about her lack of experience. "I still don't know. But oh my gosh, this is so much fun."

It hasn't been easy to get the ball rolling at the schools. At Poly, athletic director Carla Barrera flat out told Greene, "It's probably not going to happen," when the then-freshman said she hoped to start a program. The club has struggled to find a regular coach, and 15-year-old Greene has been forced to supervise some practices by herself.

City, meanwhile, had a game fall through at the last minute because the Bryn Mawr School's insurance would not cover an unregistered visiting opponent. And with no bus to transport the team to games, Kate MacDonald had to solicit individual permission slips so the players could ride in her van.

Nonetheless when Poly and City faced off in a seven-on-seven scrimmage Sept. 26, the players shared a sense they had created something real. The field was a repurposed soccer pitch without the correct line markings, and the game would never count in any official standings. But they felt like pioneers.

"I think this is the first thing I've ever started," 16-year-old Sloane MacDonald says.

Poly and City subsequently blended into one hybrid team, clad in mismatched uniforms, so they could play 11-on-11 against Friends.

Greene swears she never felt daunted when school officials seemed skeptical about her plans.

"That's what they always say when you try to start something," she says. "That's how all great stories start. Someone tells you you can't do something."

Student effort

She and Sloane learned to love field hockey on recreational teams in elementary and middle school.

Sloane also played at Calvert. But the MacDonalds have three children and determined the expense of keeping all three in private school for 12 years would be too great. So they chose City for their eldest daughter.

MacDonald knew many of her Calvert peers would go on to private high schools with field hockey programs. And she knew City didn't have a team at all.

But fate seemed to speak to her when she walked into her first class on the first day of ninth grade — biology — and met Elizabeth Gordon. In addition to being an experienced teacher, Gordon told the class, she was a field hockey referee in her spare time.

As the year progressed, Sloane MacDonald and Gordon talked about how cool it would be to bring the sport to City. MacDonald felt wistful when she jogged through Herring Run Park with City's cross-country team, and saw other girls practicing with their sticks.

"What do I do to get this thing going?" she asked her teacher.

So they broached the idea with Principal Cindy Harcum.

"She was supportive," Kate MacDonald says. "But it became clear that if it was going to happen, the effort would have to come from Sloane."

Adds Gordon: "I don't think anyone necessarily thought Sloane would see this thing through."

That was the point when Kate promised she'd coach the team if it ever came into being. She's a hospice nurse by trade but played field hockey at Hamilton College and has coached in recreational leagues.

So from there, the questions became: How would they find money for enough $60 goggles and $100 sticks? How would they recruit players?

They solved the money problem first, winning a $1,900 grant from Donorschoose.org, an organization that helps teachers raise funds for educational projects.

Sloane MacDonald's recreational league also donated sticks and goalie equipment.

Meanwhile, she urged friends from the cross-country team to take up the sport. She and Gordon manned a booth at the school's opening-week activities fair, showing intrigued students how to handle a hockey stick.

Suddenly, this thing seemed real enough that Kate lined up a regular afternoon baby sitter for Sloane's youngest sister, so she'd be available to run practices three days a week.

Seven girls showed up for the first one. They started with the most rudimentary movements of the sport.

"I had to learn to communicate with other people while I was doing a physical activity," says McNair, a track and cross-country athlete who was one of several players who'd never been on a team in any sport.

For others, the club represented a true first step into athletics.

"I don't like going onto teams where everyone seems so advanced," says Eden Lewis, a sophomore who balances field hockey with a serious devotion to the school choir. "But I had fun the first day. A lot of fun. This has really opened me up to sports."

Athletic director George Petrides had told them to seize any path of unused grass they could find for a practice field. So they settled on the lower softball field, where grass has overtaken the diamonds and traffic from Loch Raven Boulevard rumbles in the background. What they didn't realize was that when City hosts games on its main fields, the football team and the marching band migrate to the same space.

"They let us stay on one little corner," Kate MacDonald says with a laugh. "I think they felt sorry for us."

But everyone seemed to have fun, and a core group of nine girls kept coming back for daily practices. They felt connection with their new coach and appreciated that she didn't expect them to pick up the sport instantly.

"She just encourages us in every little thing we do," McNair says. "It just made me feel supported, even though this is a brand-new galaxy for me."

'Make it yourself'

Greene knew she'd have to create interest out of thin air at Poly. But her dad, Tom, had told her, "If you want something, and it's not there, just make it yourself."

She recruited lacrosse teammates, hung 40 posters in the halls and secured an equipment grant from USA Field Hockey. Her hard work paid off. When she held an organizational meeting last spring, 32 classmates showed up, even though none of them had handled a stick before.

Greene organized summer practices and brought in a Team USA regional coach to offer tips. She cobbled together a coaching rotation comprised of her father, her former middle school gym teacher and the parent of a former classmate at Roland Park Elementary-Middle.

She even won the support of her once-skeptical athletic director, Barrera. Her teammates, most of whom had never heard of field hockey six months ago, now love it as much as Greene does.

The Poly-City scrimmage, which City won 3-0, felt like validation for players on both clubs.

"It was like, now that we've had a game, this is more real," recalls Laura Brown, the only freshman on the City team. "We realized this is a thing other people are actually training for too."

Then Poly and City played side by side in their first full-squad game at Friends.

"We lost 6-0," Kate MacDonald says. "But honestly, it felt like a victory. It felt a little like we had an official season."

Their goal now is to make the official leap to varsity team, thought it might be difficult because of the lack of opponents among city schools. Greene has talked to the athletic director at Western and is optimistic a club might launch there. Digital Harbor is another possibility.

Greene hopes to capitalize on the interest of USA Field Hockey officials, who want to boost participation in cities such as Baltimore.

Whether that happens or not, she and Sloane MacDonald hope to attract more players, hold more rigorous practices and schedule more games in 2016. Sloane's younger sister, Mia, is slated to join the City squad. They might even rent a real bus.

"We'll worry about all that after this season," Sloane MacDonald says before jogging onto the practice field in her aquamarine sneakers, pink shorts and City Athletics T-shirt.

Greene, meanwhile, speaks of leaving a sustainable legacy. "If I love field hockey this much, I think others would too," she says. "There's nowhere to really play it in the city right now. So I just want to spread it to other people who might love it."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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