The current coronavirus pandemic has definitely had an impact on high school sports, as it has compelled administrators to make rule changes in several sports for the upcoming fall season, in an attempt to make playing environments as safe as possible for the players, while still giving these athletes a chance to play.
While some fall sports have not been affected by many rule changes like cross-country, and golf, the MIAA has instituted several rule changes in field hockey and has really altered the sport. This is due to the close interaction and physical contact among opponents during the normal course of play.
The most prominent rule change in field hockey for the upcoming season will be the teams playing seven players on each side, rather than the usual 11 players a side. While this will likely create more open space and scoring opportunities, playing seven vs. seven will pose a new physically demanding challenge for the players.
“There’s no doubt for every team seven vs. seven will be more physically demanding,” said Woburn coach Barbara Locke. “My kids will be playing more than one position, and my concern is that some kids may not get on the field as much, since we can only play seven at a time. I’m hoping that the committee will take a look at that, and reconsider having us play 11 vs. 11 again.”
For Reading coach Taylor Reynolds, she echoes similar thoughts with the demands of seven vs. seven.
“Yes, (it) will definitely be more challenging,” said Reynolds. “We’ve played seven vs. seven over in certain situations, and I know from my own playing experience it’s definitely more exhausting. I feel it will be an equalizer for our team, since it will be a high-paced, quick-moving game with a bigger field and more space to move. So while it will be challenging, I feel we’re up for the challenge, and that will make for an exciting new element.”
Going to seven vs. seven play will also change the way each team plays and the flow of the game with the added open areas of the field. With fewer players on the field, teams will likely find moving the ball up the field a bigger challenge, with longer passes and more ball movement closer to the middle of the field.
“It’s a huge change,” said Reynolds. “When you play 11 vs. 11, each position is a little bit more concrete, but when you play seven vs. seven it becomes more fluid. Transitions will be much more challenging, so I feel we will have a different mind-set on the field. It’s so different with COVID-19 and no tournament, and I just want to get kids on the field, so they can get in shape with more playing time.”
“We’ve played seven vs. seven before in tie situations, which gives each team more of an opportunity to score,” added Locke. “It opens up the field a lot more, each player has to cover more area, and there’s a lot more longer passes and movement to the open field. So it’s going to be a lot different this year.”
Two other rule changes that will be in effect for field hockey this fall are the elimination of penalty corners, and faceoffs after non-goal situations, commonly referred to as “bullies.”
While bullies don’t happen very often in field hockey anymore, the elimination of corners is significant. Rather than teams getting the chance to make a centering pass right in front of the net, teams will now get a direct hit in the center of the field, 25 yards from the net.
“It’s definitely an adjustment, since we train for situations where we play off of corners, but I feel like playing seven vs. seven, this will be a potential equalizer for our team,” said Reynolds. “We’ve faced some pretty challenging teams in our league who are a serious scoring threat from corners, so having no corners will take away those scoring threats from those teams. So I feel we will adjust to this situation very well.”
“Eliminating bullies is not a big deal since there’s not as many bullies as there was years ago, but I know the main reason for eliminating corners was to keep the kids safe,” added Locke. “It will be difficult for most teams not to have corners, since teams work hard to get a corner, and then capitalize on the chance to score. Not having corners will take away a lot from the game, and it might lead to teams taking more shots, since they know a corner won’t be called.”
Another minor rule change that will be in effect in field hockey this fall will be the requirement of each player to wear masks over their mouth guard. While this won’t affect how the game is played, it will be something each player will have to get used to as part of the ‘new normal’ that’s resulted from the current pandemic.
“I think wearing a mask will be a little bit different for the kids, but I see it as part of the new normal,” said Reynolds. “It’s something we’re going to get more accustomed to, so while it will be an inconvenience, as long as we’re on the field playing, our players will get used to it and adjust right away.”
PRACTICES BEGIN SEPT. 21
Another adjustment each team has to make is the delay in the field hockey season itself. Usually practices start two weeks before Labor Day, and the regular season starts right after that day. But this year due to the current pandemic, pre-season practices have been delayed, and after originally scheduled to start on Friday, Sept. 18, practices now will not start until Monday, Sept. 21.
“It’s definitely different to start practices as late as September 21st, and it’s not something we’re used to,” said Reynolds. “But considering football and volleyball got moved to February, I just feel grateful that we will be able to get out on the field this fall.
“The season will be extended into November, so I feel lucky I will be able to coach the seniors,” said the Reading coach. “The kids have been sidelined for so long, and will need the opportunity to play and socialize.”
Locke is also just happy her sport is playing.
“I’m just be glad that we will be back on the field,” she added. “The situation right now is not perfect and we’re trying to keep everyone safe, but the kids are really looking forward to it. Even if we have to give up a little bit to make things more safe, that’s OK as long as we’re playing. Since football and volleyball aren’t playing, we’re just glad to be talking about it, and the kids are getting excited.”
A final adjustment field hockey teams will have to make this fall is the change to the regular season, which will begin on Saturday, October 3. All games will be played on Saturdays and possibly Columbus Day, each team will be allowed just three practices a week, and will just play the other five teams in its own division twice each. The season will end abruptly on the Saturday before or after Thanksgiving, and unfortunately there will be no state tournament this year.
“Again it will be a challenge for us, but we’re going to be happy just to get out on the field spending time together,” said Reynolds. “It’s not going to be all about the results this year, it’s going to be more about the team, and helping younger players to improve. Playing on Saturdays will be different than before, but I feel we’ll enjoy the weekend playing games, and I’m just glad we will be playing.”
“We’re only going to play each team in our division twice, and we’re going to play each team back-to-back,” added Locke. “If we’re scheduled to play Winchester we’ll play them in Woburn and then in Winchester. They’re doing this to make it easier to trace potential outbreaks of COVID-19, and make things as safe as possible for the kids and everyone involved.”
So while high school field hockey will be much different for everyone involved this fall, at least the players, particularly the seniors, will still have a chance to play a season, and not be deprived of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.