Rocket Assistant Sports Editor
When I first started writing for The Rocket at the beginning of this school year, I was afforded the opportunity to take my choice of which sport I would like to cover on a regular basis.
I chose to cover field hockey, and I did so for two reasons.
I was eager to tackle the challenge of writing about a sport I knew next to nothing about, but also the opportunity presented by covering a team that hadn't had success in recent years.
I enjoyed spending the season covering the team, seeing what it was like to follow a group of young women that played not in front of large crowds or for the hopes of a career beyond college, but because they love the game.
Getting to know the players and coaches and how much they cared about their sport and their team, even on the days when nothing seemed to go right, was pretty inspiring.
When the opportunity then arose to write a column about practicing with a sports team, I jumped at it, because it seemed to me that practicing with the field hockey team was the idea of being a fish out of water.
To say a unique experience awaited me was a bit of an understatement.
I had watched games for the bulk of two months and struggled until the last game to wrap my brain around exactly what was going on, so the smallest thoughts I had of knowing what I was getting into were likely to be incorrect.
When the final practice of the season rolled around, I headed up to N. Kerr Thompson Stadium both expecting the worst and hoping for the best.
I certainly didn't help matters off to a good start by wearing shorts on a chilly evening made worse by the usual biting winds that come to the Slippery Rock campus.
I jumped right into practice, which began with a simple stick handling drill, and it was only a few seconds before the first shouts of "Oh no, you can't do that!" rained down on me.
I had made the mistake of playing field hockey like I had always played hockey, tapping the ball from side to side.
In field hockey, there's a catch.
The stick has a straight side and a curved side, and you have to play the ball with the curved side of the stick at all times, which means rolling the stick over in your hands, a much more challenging skill to learn.
"I think that's easily one of the things that gets overlooked in our sport," head coach Stacey Hart said. "There's a very high level of stick work and hand-eye coordination involved, and it's unique to our sport. It's the same as ice hockey, but totally different."
I certainly found that to be the case at several points during the practice.
I had a general idea of what was going on in terms of the motions of the players from my past playing ice hockey, but was repeatedly tripped up or slowed down when I had to focus on using the stick to carry the ball up the field or through the attacking zone.
Coach Hart was impressed with my play, but also wasn't surprised by my struggles.
"Your past experience works both with you and against you," Hart said. "It gives you some idea of what to do, but also works against you since field hockey has such a unique feel to it."
That certainly proved to be true, as I did notice a different feel to the game - particularly in my lower back.
Field hockey uses a fairly short stick, as the available sticks tend to vary in length, but the longest ones come in at just over three feet long.
It creates a situation where you have to get used to running up and down the field in a squat or suffer the consequences of running around doubled over at the waist.
With my lack of experience, my muscles were doomed either way, but it gave me a newfound respect for how physical the game can be, even when running free and untouched.
After a breakaway drill that included both myself and the athletic trainers, the time came for a scrimmage, and I felt my muscles tense up a bit whenever I heard Coach Hart say "Nick, you go ahead and play forward."
Sure, I was faced with less responsibility than a goaltender or a defender, but it still meant the seemingly daunting task of having to actually engage myself in the flow of a game without embarrassing myself.
I worried much less once I got involved, mostly because I took the simplest route possible - I found someone from the other team, hung around her, and followed the ball up and down the field.
All the hard work actually paid off, as the tail end of the scrimmage found me headed on a free run down the far sideline.
Like most of my other attempts at looking cool, that opportunity left me whiffing badly as I was unable to put together everything I had learned.
For an evening where I started off feeling like I was flying blind, I am proud of not looking silly, especially if it ended with the pure rush of flying down the sideline towards the same goal as everyone else.