West

HIGH SCHOOL FIELD HOCKEY

Grass or turf? Teams sticking up for their surface

JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

From left: Shrewsbury High field hockey captains Peyton Tuccinard, Alexandra Johnson and Jackie Loiseau pose together on the school's natural grass playing field.

From atop its adjacent hill, the field hockey field at Shrewsbury High looks like a new note pad on the first day of class. On the afternoon before the season’s first tryouts, the grass is low and tight with no glaring dents or dings, white lines perfectly manicured across a healthy green field.

But for those who call the field home, nature offers some slight impurities.

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The dirt beneath the circles tends to be a bit loose, years of use chewing texture into the earth. The edges of the field dip out of bounds, and since there is often little traffic that runs along the sidelines, the grass tends to grow lush and firm.

“We know if you’re hitting the ball on the sideline, you have to have a strong hit,” said Shrewsbury senior captain Peyton Tuccinard, as she and fellow captain Alexandra Johnson rattled off the field’s slight imperfections.

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“It’s really thick there.”

In a way, the Colonials are curators of the way field hockey use to be.

A number of the programs in Eastern and Central Massachusetts now play their home games on a synthetic turf, a surface that makes for an easier transition to the fast-paced college game and demands less upkeep.

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In light of a slower, less predictable work surface, Shrewsbury High continues to find ways to win. The Colonials won back-to-back Division 1 Central titles under former coach Lauren Chenevert in 2012 and 2013.

On Holden Street, grass isn’t a disadvantage — it’s a home field advantage.

“When you play on grass, you get use to those hard hits, having to move the ball up a thick field of grass compared to smooth turf,” Tuccinard said. “You get use to hitting much harder and doing better, stronger lifts. It makes you a better player, I’d say.”

Greta Gray, in her first season as head coach at Shrewsbury High, learned the game on grass, first as a player at Holy Name and then Assumption College, and then as a coach, at Tahanto Regional in Boylston, in 2003-04.

She took a decade away from the game to experience the big moments in life — starting a family, obtaining her master’s degree — and returned to find the high school game monopolized by faux grass and little chunks of rubber.

However, that doesn’t alter the game’s fundamentals.

“One of the things I want to focus on with my team is speed and agility for when we’re playing on turf,” Gray said. “Skill is skill, so if I can get the girls dribbling, passing, and communicating with each other, then they’re going to succeed whether they’re on grass or turf.”

Playing on grass comes with a blue-collar attitude. The game sometimes doesn’t flow as easily, and its speed can change day to day, even hour to hour.

“I don’t point it out to my teams,” said Dan Welty, whose Algonquin Regional squad in Norhborough has reached sectional final in three of the last five seasons.

“If we have a practice and, say, the grass hasn’t been cut yet and the grass is longer then we like it to be, I don’t acknowledge it. We’re here; we’ve got a job to do. Whatever the situation with field is today, we go and approach it the same way.”

While turf may have provided an advantage in its early days, players who play home contests on grass face a less drastic jump nowadays. Offseason clinics and summer camps are often spent on turf. The speed of turf provides less sticker shock than it once did.

“I would say it’s a little difficult, but working on grass, you’re able to take those skills and transition them to work on turf,” said Shrewsbury captain Jackie Loiseau.

“You are able to hit the ball harder on grass, but using that skill on turf, you can use that and make the ball go so much further.”

Defending state champions Acton-Boxborough (D1) and Watertown (D2) each have made a rather seamless transition to turf in the last decade.

Over the years, the A-B program has had a number of talented, driven players who sought out camps and clinics to advance their skills in the game. Turf afforded those players a surface that accurately displayed their growth.

But the transition did prompt coach Mae Shoemaker to tweak her approach.

“I had to change a lot of what I did because we practiced a lot more on power types of things on grass,” Shoemaker recalled. “It’s harder to drive a ball on grass. You lift more balls when you go to hit them because they would hit divots and hit things on the turf.

“The sheer power that the girls had to put in, we now didn’t have to focus on that same kind of strength that we did before. It truly became more of a transition to running and putting your skills into play at the speed of the game.”

Meanwhile, much of the legacy at Watertown High was etched on a grass field. The Raiders enter the season with a 138-game unbeaten streak dating back to Nov. 12, 2008 (state semifinals vs. Hopkinton, a game played on turf between two “grass” teams).

Up until 2012, all of their home wins came on grass.

“It was very hard to be on grass while all these other teams were on turf,” acknowledged coach Eileen Donahue.

“That was not easy to do. We ended up having to practice on other people’s turfs just so we could stay competitive with these programs. You’d have a rainy day, and then it’s sunny the next day, and yet the field was still wet. That was hard to deal with: knowing other people on turf were out there playing and we would have restrictions on certain parts of the field for safety reasons.”

Creativity often becomes a necessity. Ahead of big matches on turf, grass clubs will often rely on the gratuity of other high schools or colleges in the area. At Shrewsbury, practices ahead of games on turf have taken place on the school’s outdoor basketball courts.

Grass fields can be a bit inconvenient, slightly unpredictable, and an occasional hindrance. It comes with a sense of pride, though: that a team can contend anywhere on any surface.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Loiseau said. “I love being a great grass team.”

5 teams to watch:

Acton-Boxborough Regional: The defending Division 1 champs for the second time in three seasons, the Colonials are still the team to beat despite the graduation of Leah Cardarelli, the Globe’s Player of the Year (now at Michigan).

Algonquin Regional: The Tomahawks have advanced to the Division 1 Central final three of the past five years. Senior forward Taylor Long makes the offense go.

Dover-Sherborn: The four-time-defending Tri-Valley League champs were 19-1-3 last fall, when they lost to Watertown in the Division 2 state semifinals for the second year in a row.

Lexington: After 20 years as Weston’s coach, Laura Galopim led the Minutemen to 12-6-1 last fall. Are they ready to make noise in the Middlesex League’s Liberty Division?

Watertown: This season, the Raiders could surpass the national record for consecutive games without a loss (153) held by Eastern High in Voorhees, N.J. The Raiders will start the season with 138 games without a loss, six straight state titles, and zero goals allowed in their last 25 games. This season, the Raiders could surpass the national record for consecutive games without a loss (153), currently held by Eastern High in Voorhees, N.J.

5 players to watch:

Carmen Braceras , Concord-Carlisle: The senior is the leading returning point producer in the state (23 goals, 16 assists last fall).

Allie Brinkhaus , Needham: The reigning Bay State Conference’s Carey Division MVP returns for her senior season after helping the Rockets to a 14-6-1 season with 22 goals and eight helpers.

Katie Crowley , Nashoba Regional: A strong net presence will be critical for the Chieftains, who graduated three of their four top scorers. Crowley led the team to the Division 2 state semis with 12 shutouts and 0.556 goals-against average.

Kourtney Kennedy , Watertown: The junior midfielder was second-leading scorer (14 goals, 18 assists) for the Division 2 state champs, and has verbally committed to UConn.

Taylor Long , Algonquin Regional: The Tomahawks reached the Division 1 Central semis thanks to the production (23 goals, 5 assists) of their high-scoring forward. She enters her senior year eight points shy of the program’s all-time scoring record (Elizabeth Holmes, 66).

Andrew MacDougall can be reached at ajmacdougall@ gmail.com.
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