Field hockey facing unsatisfactory field changes

Athletics on Colby’s campus is a large part of student life whether students are on a sports team or not. The level of play at which Colby holds its athletics is consistently growing with the addition of new highly qualified coaches in multiple sports (women’s field hockey, women’s basketball, women’s hockey, and men’s lacrosse just to name a few) while also promising a new athletic center and fields to further Colby’s competitiveness in the NESCAC. However, the building of the new athletic facilities will have a paradoxical effect on women’s field hockey. Colby Athletics is to remove the new 2-year-old AstroTurf for construction of the new athletic center, demoting CFH (Colby field hockey) to playing on field turf. The Morning Sentinel reported the construction of three new fields on 19 acres behind the current athletic center including a grass field for soccer, a practice field for intramural and soccer, and an artificial turf for men’s lacrosse, women’s lacrosse, and women’s field hockey. This will set back the field hockey program’s performance and recruiting significantly and without question.

AstroTurf fields have long been regarded as the unequivocal standard for field hockey performance and are a favorite among coaches and athletes alike for their playability, durability and low maintenance. AstroTurf is recognized as the Official Artificial Surface Provider of both USA Field Hockey and the National Field Hockey Coaches Association. A recent NFHCA survey showed that 71% of Division I schools play hockey on an AstroTurf field. The past summer 2016 olympics in Rio, where the US field hockey team advanced to the quarterfinals, all the games were played on AstroTurf. When surveyed, the field hockey team unanimously agree (24:0) that astroturf is their preferred surface indefinitely because, according to Kat Restrepo ’18, it “speeds up the level of play allowing the game to become about skill, finesse, and fitness rather than muscling the ball around, bobbeling balls, and luck.”

In an email to The Echo, Colby Director of Communications, Kate Carlisle, stated: “It was important for the college to have a field usable by multiple sports, as well as accessible by athletes in the larger community, and so we chose the ‘infill turf’ for this surface.” According to Carlisle, the College plans to utilize a surface provided by Shaw Sports Turf. Shaw Sports Turf is a well known turf provider who has outfitted infill (field) turf fields for both NFL teams and DI colleges across the US.

The College looked to other NESCAC schools when making the decision. However, only four other NESCAC schools utilize field turf for field hockey: Williams, Connecticut College, Wesleyan, and Amherst. In a 2014 press release, former Colby Field Hockey coach, Tina Cormier, stated: “We’re excited with the direction our program is headed in…A part of keeping that momentum going is the turf upgrade at Bill Alfond Field. AstroTurf is widely recognized as the gold standard for our sport, and we couldn’t have asked for a better surface to play on.”

Middlebury, Bowdoin, Bates, Trinity, Hamilton, and Tufts all utilize AstroTurf for field hockey.

Julie Hutchinson, mother of field hockey player Kallie Hutchinson ’19 (current lead scorer), former University of Maine-Orono field hockey player, and former Yarmouth high school head field hockey coach, described her take on the AstroTurf vs field turf debate: “From my point of view Colby is taking away a huge ‘home field advantage’ for the field hockey team.” She continued as a fan, “AstroTurf makes the flow of the game faster, not to mention that many of the top teams in the NESCAC have this playing surface. In order for Colby to break into that top level of play it would be a disadvantage to change the  surface.” Hutchinson also revealed, as a parent who has been through the recruiting process herself and for her daughter, that she believes field hockey recruitment numbers would definitely decrease when comparing Colby to other DIII or DII schools or even with Bowdoin and Bates.  She stated, “it will lower Colby on the choice list for a
graduating senior”.

Regardless of the pros and cons of field turf, the Bill Alfond Field brings the community together and grows the sport in the Maine area. Hutchinson brought up how local high schools will often come and use the turf, inspiring them to grow the game. It not only brings younger players to Colby, but gives them a pristine surface to develop their skills on.

In a letter from Steve Horgan, the USA Field Hockey Director of Umpiring, he responded to Colby’s plan to replace its water based field with pellet based field turf with an outline of concerns. First, Horgan revealed, “The water based turf allows for two major aspects of the game to be executed properly and safely. One is the slide tackle which has become more prevalent in today’s game. The second is the sweeping hit, which by today’s standards is essential to playing good fast hockey. The players stick can glide on top of the carpet cleanly and efficiently which cannot happen on a field turf due to the the rubber pellets impeding the stick from smoothly moving across the top of the turf.” He continued by noting that field turf becomes matted down over time which will not allow the ball to travel it’s true path while also causing players to struggle when hitting, pushing, or stopping as the ball would bounce. He captured his concern when he stated, “(these effects) diminishes the ability for the student athlete who works so hard to perfect their skill to present them at their best in competition.”

Lastly, Horgan responded to the question, ‘Why water based turf’ to which he responded “Safety. The water allows for the almost elimination of turf burn but it has also helped to prevent knee injuries while playing on almost a perfect surface. It is my understanding that as a player goes to move around the field at a high speed and different angles, if a cut is made and the player does not have their bodied centered she is more likely to slip and fall to the turf and not have her knee “blow out”. On a dry turf where the shoes are more likely to ‘stick’ into the turf, the only thing that can give is the human body, thus possible injury.”

Knee injury and turf burn aren’t the only effects that field turf can have on its players. Crumb-rubber is the material the beads that cover the field between blades of plastic grass are made of. ESPN noted the pellets are a product of recycled car tires that have been scrapped and shredded. These scrapped pieces are converted to pellets for turf fields or even used for playground surfaces due to the bounce of the rubbery exterior. It is estimated that between 20,000 to 30,000 tires are ground up per field and there are over 12,000 synthetic crumb-rubber fields in the US. In 2015, Brown studied the crumb rubber to determine the composition and found in 14 test samples, 12 known carcinogens along with 96 other chemicals that have not been yet tested by the government.

The field hockey team’s concerns are not limited and students will have to wait and see how athletics will rethink the turf choices with these arguments in mind.

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