South Charlotte

Mustang team can't keep up with demand

When head coach Julie Gibbons helped restart the Myers Park High field hockey team last year, she wasn't sure there would be much interest. She sure didn't expect to make cuts.

About 55 players came to the tryouts, far more than needed for a sport that fields 11 players at a time, and she had to cut the group down to 44 players for a junior varsity and varsity squad. This year, more than 50 tried out again, and she had to cut to 41.

"We had a huge turnout and weren't expecting to have cuts or anything, and ended up both seasons having so many people come out for it," said Gibbons. "There was a want for it."

With the high interest at Myers Park, an independent club program and several quality field hockey programs in south Charlotte private schools, it may come as a surprise no other Charlotte-Mecklenburg School has a field hockey program.

Myers Park had a field hockey team for several years until it ended the program after the 2008 season. It was hard on the players when Myers Park didn't have a team in 2009, said senior team captain Mary Madison Albright.

"I think it really bummed a lot of people out, but what it made us realize is how important this sport was to us, and without it we didn't really know what to do," said Albright, 17, who started playing field hockey in seventh grade at Charlotte Country Day before transferring to Myers Park.

Players and parents started trying to restart the club, led by Austen Zoutewelle and her mother, Jean. Austen, the only senior on last year's team and who is playing now at Division III Sewanee, wanted to play for Myers Park her senior year. Jean knew Gibbons from when she was the junior varsity coach at Charlotte Latin from 2000-2004. She called the coach and asked if Gibbons would be interested in restarting a program. She was.

The team returned to the field last year under the North Carolina Field Hockey Association (field hockey is not sanctioned by the N.C. High School Athletic Association). Myers Park plays in a conference with Charlotte Catholic and Asheville High and also plays Charlotte Latin, Providence Day and Charlotte Country Day.

Field hockey isn't a varsity sport at Myers Park but operates as a club, with a group of parents managing the team with Gibbons. Gibbons said she has met with Myers Park athletic director Rick Lewis, however, and he has been supportive of the team, even allowing them to play one game later this year on the main Myers Park field instead of their usual home at E.B. Moore Park.

Gibbons said 75 percent to 80 percent of the players have played the sport before, either at a private school or with the Charlotte Field Hockey Club. Gibbons, who was also a volunteer assistant coach for the Davidson College field hockey team, said she has been impressed by the players. "They're the most dedicated players I've ever worked with," she said. "They are out here every day working very hard."

The varsity team is 3-5 this year and 2-0 in the conference.

They may have a losing record, Gibbons said, but the players have progressed quickly over the last two years, and especially early this season.

"We have seen huge developments in these last two weeks ... not just by the record, but we have challenged some of the foundational teams in the area," she said. "I think what I'm most proud of for them is that they know that they're good, and I think that on a given day if we all play our best game we could have a fantastic win."

Gibbons hopes more schools in the area will start to pick up the sport after seeing how it has worked at Myers Park.

Albright, who used to play lacrosse and said she has always been interested in "alternative sports," said she thinks field hockey could take off in Charlotte.

"I feel like field hockey could be mainstream, could be such a positive team to have at each CMS school," said Albright. "It just surprises me that people haven't been motivated enough to cultivate a team."

There are plenty of field hockey resources in the area, said Gibbons, with many Division I programs in the state with camps for high schoolers.

North Carolina and Duke both are ranked in the top 10 nationally.

"There's just some amazing coaches in the area," said Gibbons, 36, who played collegiately at Georgetown. "I coached with Lisa Thompson at Davidson, and now she coaches Country Day's program. Miki Osherow is over at (Providence Day), and she helps run the club program, and I think all these people that are around my age that played at the collegiate level really want these girls to have the opportunity to think about that as an option."

Gibbons said she doesn't think this team would have "taken off" as well these last few years if it wasn't for the hard work and enthusiasm of the players and parents.

They're excited about playing and Gibbons wants it to stay that way.

"I want them to learn and I want them to get better, but I really want everybody to be having a good time - coaches, parents and players included," she said. "I think on most days we're achieving that. That makes me happy."