Seven players to a side isn’t a foreign concept for high school field hockey players in Massachusetts, many of whom have participated in postseason contests in which a 7 v 7 format is utilized in overtime.
The first modification, and certainly the most impactful, instituted by the MIAA Field Hockey Committee as a COVID-19 health and safety measure for play this fall, is 7 v 7, the new normal for 2020.
Traditionally, play is 11 v 11, including goalies.
So playing the game with no alterations to field dimensions (100 yards by 60 yards), with eight fewer players, is quite different, in the eyes of coaches and players.
Kim Good, in her seventh season at Weston High, was part of a group of 25 field hockey coaches who sent a letter to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association outlining their concerns with the changes. She felt the MIAA was “playing the fairness game” in terms of being able to say they made an equal number of modifications for each sport, not game-impact or game-outcome modifications.
“Above all, we’re grateful that we’re playing,” Good said. “But when you look at a sport like soccer that’s allowed to play with 11 people on the field and you look at a sport like field hockey that has been reduced to 7 vs. 7, it’s really hard to find the justification and what safety modification that it’s encompassing when you look at it from that perspective.”
Good said the nature of field hockey is more socially distant than soccer. Contact is strictly prohibited; the stick, not the feet, is used to gain possession of the ball.
Penalty corners, a tried and true method of generating offense for many, have been replaced with a free hit from the 25-yard marker when a defensive penalty is whistled inside the circle.
The 7 v 7 format, noted several coaches, is designed to end games quickly in postseason overtimes.
“It takes away a lot of the skill. Just like anything else, it changes the whole game," said Walpole coach Jen Quinn.
Quinn predicted an influx of penalty strokes in place of the corners, noting that an intentional foul by a defending team in the circle had to result in something.
Weston cocaptain Jackie Goode, with four goals in a 2-0 start for the Wildcats, said the lack of corners has forced her and her teammates to take on a scrappier offensive approach.
“It’s a lot more spread out,” she said.
Conditioning has also been at the forefront of concerns for coaches. In addition to four fewer players per side, all competitors must wear masks — on top of the preexisting rule requiring mouthguards.
Depth will be more important, potentially giving programs with more players in their system a distinct advantage. Quinn was able to get all 21 players on her varsity roster onto the field in the Porkers’ opening 4-0 win against Milton on Monday; in a typical, 11 vs. 11 game under normal circumstances, Quinn said that number could be much lower, in the 12-13 player range.
In-game coaching has been altered with the quick substitutions.
Norwood’s Alison Doliner foresees needing an extra coach to manage the subbing when the Mustangs open their season Oct. 17.
“Since it is such a big field and there’s only seven people out there, we’re lucky having a few coaches on the sideline because it takes one person coaching the game, one person keeping an eye on the subbing,” Doliner said.
Goode, who also plays ice hockey at Weston, likened the quick subbing to her winter sport.
“Having a bunch of players this year is super helpful,” said Goode, one of 10 seniors on a varsity roster that numbers 23.
“We’ve been able to get off the field, recover and go right back on. As much as it’s affected our game, I think we’ve handled it super well.”
Programs that have had an offensive system in place long term, such as Hingham with 15-year coach Susan Petrie, have had to reimagine their philosophy on the fly.
“We’re so used to having small passing triangles,” Petrie said. “All of a sudden you have this wide-open field and that kind of changes the way you approach the game.”
The alternative of waiting until the MIAA’s floating season, or Fall II from Feb. 22 to April 25, was not embraced.
“It isn’t fall without field hockey,” Petrie said.
But the game on display for the next 5-6 weeks is not familiar to anyone.
“The strategy is a lot different,” Good said. “It takes a lot of time and consideration into how you structure practices. It’s been a lot to think about and a lot to consider. Kids are resilient, they’ve been doing a great job with it.”
▪ Three leagues in EMass have moved its fall sports seasons to Fall II: The Greater Boston League, Mayflower League and South Coast Conference.
The SCC is home to Somerset Berkley, the two-time defending Division 1 state champion.
“I couldn’t believe it, when pretty much every other town in Massachusetts is having some type of fall season,” said S-B coach Jen Crook said, noting that both the school committee and superintendent approved of the Raiders returning to play. “It’s very strange.”
In the meantime, several S-B players have been competing in a pickup league in Rhode Island. Next week, the team will be eligible to return to school-sanctioned practices.
Crook remains skeptical about the viability of the Fall II season, however, noting that the Raiders are the only program in the SCC with a turf field. “We can host games,” she said.
▪ Although not all nonleague rivalries have been put on pause — Hingham played crosstown foe Notre Dame Academy on Monday (the Patriot League is scheduling games this fall against NDA in girls’ sports) — one notable matchup was eliminated by the pandemic.
Norwood, relegated to nonleague status after its departure from the Bay State Conference in 2018 to the Tri-Valley League, will not face neighboring Walpole.
Doliner, whose cousin, Natalie Griffin, is a junior who plays for Quinn’s Porkers, said she’ll miss the competition that Walpole, as well as Canton (Hockomock) have provided.
▪ The TVL is among the leagues shifting to a weekend schedule for games, with teams playing back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday against the same opponent. The hope, Doliner said, is that if a player is contagious, there will be five days before facing the next foe and hopefully, enough time to catch a potential case of the coronavirus.
▪ Field hockey at the sub-varsity level has been impacted by the pandemic, too. In Weston, Good said that her JV team only has four games scheduled; in a typical season, the JV team will play as many matches as the varsity. Quinn has worked around the issue in Walpole by dividing her sub-varsity players into two JV teams, rather than one JV team and one freshmen team. The two JV teams will scrimmage against each other, as well as the Bird Middle School team in Walpole for a total of eight “matches.”