Next month, five local teams will make the two-hour trek north, headed for the epicenter of the field hockey universe: Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
If the destination sounds like the result of a GPS gone awry, think again. For decades, Pennsylvania has been home to some of the most dominant field hockey programs in the United States, and just last season fielded eight of the nation’s top 18 teams.
Now, Maryland is doing its best to play catch-up. An expanding club scene is leading to improved play at the high school level, and on Sept. 20-22, some of the area's top programs will have the chance to show just how far they've come at a first-of-its-kind national invitational.
"Pennsylvania has been the mecca of field hockey as long as I've known," said Notre Dame Prep coach Katrina Ross, a former college player at Temple. "But as far as field hockey in [Maryland], you're seeing growth, not just in the caliber of the programs, but also the individual players that are being recruited."
Back when Ross graduated from Centennial in 1994, only a handful of players in the state went to Division I field hockey programs. As of this summer, there were more than 50 Maryland players who either had signed or committed to go DI, including eight from NDP alone, according to a database compiled by MAX Field Hockey.
And, more and more, their careers aren't stopping at the college level.
The current U.S. women’s national team features a pair of former Baltimore Sun Players of the Year, Glenelg’s Alyssa Parker (2010, 2011) and Patterson Mill’s Linnea Gonzales (2013).
Two other former area standouts, Carrera Lucas (St. Paul’s) and Erin Shanahan (Archbishop Spalding), are members of the women’s national developmental team, and former Spalding stars Kyler Greenwalt (Under-21) and Margot Lawn (U-19) are part of the U.S. junior national U-21 and U-19 teams, respectively.
Former Glenelg standout Noelle Frost is a member of the U.S. women's national indoor team, and five other local players are either on the women's national indoor development or junior national indoor teams.
That's 12 local players on national-level teams, not to mention the eight selected for last year's all-region Mid-Atlantic squad. Those are numbers that would've been hard to fathom just a decade ago.
"Years ago, anyone who made any kind of all-region or Mid-Atlantic team was from Pennsylvania, sort of like lacrosse is dominated here in Maryland," Spalding coach Leslee Brady said. "These all-region and national teams used to not have anyone from Maryland."
Part of that is attributable to the recent explosion of club programs in the state, something McDonogh coach Denise Wolf has seen first-hand.
Back when Wolf's oldest daughter, Brady, was coming up in the sport, Baltimore-area clubs were few and far between.
"We only had one [local] club [Green Turtle], and not many girls played it," Denise Wolf recalled. "We were all lacrosse players and parents. Now we have five clubs right around Reisterstown and Owings Mills. So the growth of the clubs has definitely increased the number of kids coming out for [high school] teams."
Now, both Denise and Brady Wolf, a 2013 McDonogh graduate, coach the Owings Mills-based Baltimore Stix, just one of more than 30 club programs in the state affiliated with USA Field Hockey.
"Even five years ago, I had maybe one or two players who were playing club," Leslee Brady said. "Now I've got dozens."
"We've gotten some better quality clubs that have come into town," Arundel coach Carrie Vosburg said. "Now, we're starting to really reap the benefits of that."
Still, the numbers continue to pale in comparison with lacrosse, which has become a year-round pursuit for many. At lacrosse-power McDonogh, for instance, Wolf still has problems attracting younger players, since club lacrosse season overlaps high school field hockey season.
It’s an issue that also affects public schools in certain parts of the area, which sometimes have difficulty fielding varsity teams, much less JV squads.
"It’s hard sometimes because I get a lot of kids who come in as freshmen and they’re multi-sport athletes, but they’re like, `Lacrosse, lacrosse, lacrosse. I want to play in college,' " Vosburg said. “I think there’s a misconception, because a lot of these kids could have opportunities to play field hockey in college, as well. But for whatever reason, there’s been this big push for lacrosse from a very young age.”
Of course, teams able to fill out their rosters with talented lacrosse athletes also see the benefits. Last season, for instance, Notre Dame Prep utilized nearly a dozen lacrosse players on its way to finishing 20-1 and winning the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference title for the second straight year.
“That’s kind of what sets apart really good years — how many of those really great lacrosse players do you get,” Ross said. “They can be a differentiator of whether or not you’re going to win some big games.”
Pennsylvania, like most other states, has less of a conflict when it comes to field hockey vs. lacrosse, with more girls focusing on field hockey from an early age.
That’s what will make next month’s inaugural MAX Field Hockey National High School Invitational so interesting. The five local teams participating — NDP, McDonogh, Garrison Forest, Archbishop Spalding and Arundel — will get to see just how far they’ve come, and just how far they still must go to compete with the nation’s elite.
NDP, The Baltimore Sun’s top-ranked team a year ago, will face Louisville’s Sacred Heart Academy, the No. 8 team in the nation, and Germantown Academy, the No. 10 team in Pennsylvania. A Conference finalist Garrison Forest will play three games, including one against Greenwich (Connecticut) Academy, the No. 12 team in the Northeast.
Each game will be a huge challenge. Teams earned invitations either by finishing in the national or regional rankings, or by competing for a state or major conference championship. While chances to play the best teams in the nation have become commonplace in sports like basketball and lacrosse, the idea of a three-day, 36-team tournament is a first in high school field hockey.
“I really like the idea for our high school team to get to travel together and experience that,” said Vosburg, whose Arundel team will play twice, including a game against New Jersey Group 2 state champion West Essex. "It kind of gives us an idea about, `Hey, where does Maryland field hockey stack up vs. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York.' "
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“This is going to be a big challenge,” Brady said. “That’s one of the reasons I signed up to play in it. Most of our competition is in our own league, so where do we get the competition outside of our own conference? This is a great opportunity for us to see how far we’ve come.”