Field hockey is trending toward the fast track on turf

The four 17-year-olds have been teammates since freshman year, and this season, as one of the smallest senior classes that the Andover (MA) High field hockey program has had in recent memory, is no different.

After a tough triple overtime loss to eventual state champion Acton-Boxborough last fall, Caroline Curtin, Tori Roche, Jillian Hughes, and Brenna Keefe have one last chance to walk off the field as champions.

As the four worked on drills, the ball skittered across the turf surface from stick to stick before one fired a shot into the back of the net.

But it wasn’t always that simple.

“We used to play up there on the plateau,” said Keefe, pointing off in the distance to the grass field on top of a hill where freshman and junior varsity field hockey teams still play their home games.

“But it’s a much higher scoring game on turf than it is on grass

The quartet played their freshmen seasons on grass, but after they made the jump to varsity, they’ve played on turf ever since.

“The game is just so much smoother on the turf,” said Curtin. “The ball moves so much easier on it.”

Andover High added a synthetic turf field in 2007.

“At that time, it was still around 75 percent grass fields,” said Andover head coach Maureen Noone. “I think most teams would love to have [turf], it’s just the cost is outrageous (the average installation costs about $770,000).

But synthetic fields have very little maintenance costs, and offer the benefit of playing during, or shortly after wet weather.

“Athletic directors became more restrictive on grass fields because teams would tear them apart in bad weather,” said Barb Damon, formerly the head coach at Danvers High, who now coordinates the North sectional field hockey tourney.

“Most teams around here have turf now.”

Of the 16 high school teams that advanced to the North quarter finals in division 1 or 2 last fall, only Lynnfield, Triton Regional, and Tewksbury played their regular season home games on a grass field.

Triton and Tewksbury are scheduled to install turf fields in the coming year, while Lynnfield will make its debut this fall.

“This is the future of field hockey, it’s such a better game played on turf,” said Lynnfield head coach Mamie Reardon.

“It’s more fluid, you don’t have to worry about divots or pebbles or unevenness. It’s so much easier for kids to learn and perfect the skills.”

Danvers, meanwhile, enters a year of transition as construction of its turf field begins. A number of the school’s athletic programs will play their home games at away sites, but the field hockey team will remain on their grass field in the outfield of the baseball diamond.

“The grass itself is nice, the people do a great job of keeping it playable,” said Danvers head coach Jill McGinnity, “But when I learned they were really serious about moving forward with a new stadium, I was really excited.”

“Every sport is changed by turf, but field hockey is just a totally different game,” McGinnity said. “You use different drills and different strategies when you’re on turf vs. on grass.”

Noone noted than an hour of practice on turf is equivalent to two to three hours on grass.

“When you’re on grass, everything just goes a lot slower and you don’t get as many reps,” Noone said.

And teams that play their home games on grass are at a disadvantage during the state tournament, particularly when games in the later rounds are shifted to neutral sites.

“I have to use the turf fields for those games, it just comes down to what’s the best place to play and the grass fields aren’t a viable option for flexibility,” said Damon.

“Last year, we used Reading, we used Acton-Boxborough and we used North Andover, all of them have beautiful turf fields and great venues.”

Andover’s Curtin believes it is more difficult to transition from grass to turf than vice versa.

“When we have to play on grass, we practice on the grass field,” she said. “But grass teams don’t have a turf field to practice on when they’re preparing for a turf game.”

Noone, her coach, added that if you’re scheduled to play on turf, “you’re expected to play on turf,” she said.

“It takes 15 minutes or so to catch up with the pace of the game as a grass team that isn’t used to it.”

In the Cape Ann League, Lynnfield is now one of four schools, out of 12. that have turf.

“I’d say about 60 to 70 percent of the Cape Ann League still plays on grass,” said Reardon. “But it’s a competitive conference regardless. There’s nothing wrong with grass fields, field hockey has been played on grass forever.”

But synthetic/turf surfaces are trending, and in the transition, the game of field hockey is on a fast pace