Dressed in an orange Alexandra Field Hockey T-shirt with the No. 12 on the back, 14-year-old Emma Smith used her stick to possess the ball and headed goalward.
"It’s all you, Emma!" a coach shouted from the sideline on July 1 at Minnie Howard Field.
Smith, new to the sport of field hockey, dribbled several times before rolling the ball toward an empty net. While her technique lacked polish, the end result of Smith’s shot was the envy of any seasoned veteran — a goal. But after the ball came to rest in the net and the ensuing applause faded, Smith’s inexperience showed as she headed to the sideline.
"Girls!" Colleen Cassidy, coach of the White team, instructed. "If you score, you’ve got to get the ball."
It is customary in field hockey for a goal scorer to retrieve the ball after finding the net. Such nuances, along with the sport’s physical skills, are being taught during the inaugural season of the Alexandria Girls Field Hockey League. Girls ages 10-14, many of whom have little to no field hockey experience, are learning by playing on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Howard Field. Eight teams are composed of 112 participants who receive instruction from T.C. Williams coaches and athletes, along with volunteers.
Smith, an incoming freshman at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes, said she likes field hockey because it’s "aggressive," but is experiencing the difficulties of learning a new sport. Among the most frustrating of adaptations are the rules of the game, including use of only one side of the stick and not being allowed to touch the ball with one’s foot.
"You have to get used to those things," Smith said. "It is hard at first, but it’s a really good sport once you" adjust.
Smith plays for the Orange team, which is coached by 2009 T.C. Williams graduates Linzi Burstein and Katie Mulberger, each of whom played for the Titans.
"I was really honored when I got asked to coach because I knew it would be a great program that was starting for the Alexandria community," said Burstein, a 19-year-old rising sophomore lacrosse player at Georgetown. "Having played field hockey, I was so excited because it’s something I could use my own knowledge to teach the girls."
The former Titans said teaching those new to the game requires explanation through demonstration. During halftime of the Orange-White game, Burstein and Mulberger showed members of the Orange how to set up a teammate in front of the net and how to finish with a goal.
"I had no idea that so many of them had never played before," said Mulberger, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Dickinson, "but they all adapt really quickly and they’re great listeners."
Cassidy, a 2004 T.C. Williams graduate and the head coach of the Titans’ freshman team, described girls ages 10-14 as "moldable." While they like to joke and have fun, they still pay attention.
As the coach of a public school freshman team, Cassidy is used to teaching field hockey basics to those new to the sport. If girls are introduced to the game at a younger age, it will likely help the city’s programs — especially T.C. Williams.
"I know from coaching freshmen, we get the incoming eighth- and ninth-graders who have never touched a ball before or, if they have, they’ve only done a week-long camp just to get the basics," Cassidy said. "We’re spending the first two and three weeks, if not the first month, going over the technique and the basic drills and all that.
"Being able to [coach] them as 10 and 14 year olds to get the basics down, we’ll be able to refine a bit more when they come to the freshman team — focusing more on plays and getting the skills down as opposed to just going over the basic rules."
Amelia Cole, an 11-year-old incoming sixth-grader at Hammond, said the rules are confusing but she enjoys playing.
"I love the adrenaline rush," said Cole, a member of the White team. "When you’re playing defense, you just see the player coming along with the ball and you get to steal the ball from them. It’s fun."
Cole said she wants to continue playing field hockey and would like to one day attend T.C. Williams.
Regular season games continue through July 15. Two games are played at 6:30 p.m. and two more at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The playoffs begin July 20 and the championship game is scheduled for July 27.
The goal of the league is for girls to become familiarized with and enjoy field hockey. So far, it seems to be working.
"They’re doing a really good job explaining what they’re calling," said Maura Newell, a 13-year-old incoming eighth-grader at St. Mary’s. "The refs do really good at making sure that everyone understands what’s happening."