Luke DeCock

Field hockey: The Triangle’s Olympic sport

Former East Chapel Hill High and Wake Forest University field hockey player Michelle Kasold of Team USA plays against Team India during a field hockey match in preparation for the upcoming Rio Olympics on July 18, 2016 in Manheim, Pennsylvania.
Former East Chapel Hill High and Wake Forest University field hockey player Michelle Kasold of Team USA plays against Team India during a field hockey match in preparation for the upcoming Rio Olympics on July 18, 2016 in Manheim, Pennsylvania. Getty Images

After going to the Olympics in 2012, Michelle Kasold came home to visit her alma mater, East Chapel Hill. When she walked into field-hockey practice, it was like a conquering hero had returned from the wars, a rock star descending into the audience.

“The girls lost their minds,” East Chapel Hill coach Susan Taylor said. “It was pretty exciting.”

Kasold is an exception and a rarity, an Olympian from North Carolina in field hockey, a popular Northeastern sport that North Carolina colleges dominate but is just now starting to gain traction at the high-school level here. As Kasold heads to Rio de Janeiro for her second Olympics, the 29-year-old is one of seven players on the U.S. field-hockey team with ties to the area.

With Kasold, five players from the University of North Carolina and one from Duke, field hockey really is the Triangle’s Olympic team. Throw in one other player who attended Wake Forest, and half the 16-player roster has some link to North Carolina. That’s an immense number considering Kasold is the state’s only homegrown Olympian in the sport, and the vast majority of players who come here for college still come from field-hockey hotbeds like Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“The sport has grown so much,” Kasold said. “There are so many more clubs. It helps that there are such good programs at North Carolina and Duke and Wake.”

Building a powerhouse

Field hockey is a hybrid of ice hockey, lacrosse and soccer, played almost entirely on the ground since the sticks have short, rounded blades with only flat side and no curve – making it one of the very few sports that’s better suited to artificial turf than the real thing.

It remains a bit of a novelty in North Carolina, unsanctioned by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association at the high-school level. But schools from North Carolina and Virginia have won 19 of the 34 national titles since it became an NCAA sport in 1982 – nine by Old Dominion, six by North Carolina, three by Wake Forest and one by James Madison.

It’s an odd geographic shift, one that started about 30 years ago and has continued to strengthen. Of the 16 players on the 1984 Olympic team, the only one to win a medal, 11 were from Pennsylvania or New Jersey. Many went to smaller Philadelphia-area colleges like Ursinus or West Chester, holdovers from the pre-Title IX days before bigger schools began to get involved.

There were always little hotbeds of the sport scattered throughout the country at the college level, schools like Iowa and Northwestern and California, even as its heart remained squarely in the mid-Atlantic. Old Dominion, an early power in the sport, helped push it south, at least at the college level.

Field hockey really is the Triangle’s team. Half the 16-player roster has some link to North Carolina.

North Carolina added the sport in 1971, but it languished until the school in 1981 hired Karen Shelton, a graduate of West Chester and a future member of that 1984 bronze-medal team. Shelton quickly built a powerhouse, winning the first of six national championships in 1989.

Others would follow suit. Wake Forest won three straight championships from 2002-04, while Duke has gone to four national-title games. The players still come predominantly from the northeast, but the talent has for a long time flowed south for college – and then onto the Olympic team.

Every national team since Shelton arrived has included at least one UNC player, including six for the 2008 Olympics, three in 2012 and this year’s five: three-time Olympians Rachel Dawson and Katelyn Falgowski and first-timers Jackie Briggs, Kelsey Kolojejchick and Caitlin Van Sickle.

“I can relate with all of those athletes so it’s fun for me every four years,” Shelton said. “And of course, to have former players there and our program known as a breeding ground for national players and Olympians helps us in recruiting. They know this is the path to the national team.”

Blazing trails

With that success at the college level, more players within the state have picked up sticks. Kasold remains a trailblazer, but the 21-member national team pool includes not only Kasold but two other N.C. natives, Charlotte’s Loren Shealy (North Carolina) and Durham’s Lauren Blazing (Duke), both of whom were among the final cuts for Rio and could very well be part of the 2020 team.

The North Carolina Field Hockey Association oversees competition among 20 public schools, including new participants in Charlotte and the Triad, while 15 private schools play in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association.

“What you’re seeing is a lot of these people that are from the hotbeds, the Northern states, California, that play these sports and that are staying in this area are starting to get involved,” said Kaitlin Brown, head of the N.C. Field Hockey Association. “Over the next couple of years, field hockey is going to boom. Maybe not as rapidly as lacrosse, but it’s going to get there.”

This fall, UNC will have five players on its 26-player roster from within the state: two from Charlotte, one from Cary, one from Chapel Hill and one from Clemmons. That’s more than Pennsylvania (four), Virginia (three), New Jersey (two) or New York (one). Duke has one from Raleigh and one from Durham.

The obstacles facing an elite field-hockey player coming out of North Carolina aren’t that different than those a would-be NHL player would face. Without the development programs and elite competition found in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, just as on the ice in Minnesota and Michigan and Massachusetts, it’s tough for even a talented North Carolina athlete to advance at the same rate.

Those who can overcome those obstacles find opportunity. Kasold, who was born in California but moved to Chapel Hill when she was 4, said it actually may have been an advantage for her, since being a standout in a small pool of players here opened doors for her that might not have been open if she had been part of the crowd in Pennsylvania.

“The coaching has gotten better. The facilities are getting better,” Shelton said. “You can find great athletes anywhere in the country, terrific student-athletes. We’ve gotten players from Texas, which is not a field-hockey hotbed, St. Louis, even Oklahoma. It’s been tremendous for us. The trend is better coaching and earlier exposure to our sport.

“Young kids are playing at a much younger age. I didn’t pick up a field-hockey stick until seventh grade. Now kids are playing in third and fourth grade. That’s where other countries around the world are – the Netherlands, Great Britain, Australia, Argentina. That gap is starting to close.”

Medal aspirations

The gap is starting to close on the field as well. For the first time in a while, perhaps ever, expectations are high for the United States heading into the Olympics. The Americans have been ranked as high as fifth in the world this year, and this summer finished third at a tournament in London that brings the six best teams together before the Olympics.

After a disappointing 12th-place finish in London, the United States moved its residency program from California to Lancaster, Pa., in the middle of field hockey’s homeland. Changes were made to the coaching staff. Fitness levels were raised, technical skills improved. There’s plenty of on-field evidence to suggest that this team has a fighting chance to win the second U.S. medal in the sport, 32 years after Shelton and her teammates won bronze.

“As much as we learned in London about the experience of being on that big stage, every day we’ve put in work to make sure we don’t feel like we did at the end of those Olympics,” Kasold said. “We’ve learned a lot from that experience. I’m really excited.”

Kasold already has made history in the sport. She has a chance to make a little more in Rio.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

THE TRIANGLE’S OLYMPIC TEAM

Of the 16 players on the U.S. field-hockey roster for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, seven have ties to the Triangle, led by Chapel Hill’s Michelle Kasold, an Olympian in 2012. An eighth played at Wake Forest.

Jackie Briggs

UNC

28

Robesonia, Pa.

Lauren Crandall

Wake Forest

31

Doylestown, Pa.

Rachel Dawson

UNC

31

Berlin, N.J.

Katelyn Falgowski

UNC

27

Landenberg, Pa.

Stefanie Fee

Duke

26

Virginia Beach, Va.

Michelle Kasold

Wake Forest

29

Chapel Hill

Kelsey Kolojejchick

UNC

24

Larksville, Pa.

Caitlin Van Sickle

UNC

26

Wilmington, Del.

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