South Carolina is the latest USA state to recognise the value of hockey as a sport that is fast-paced, exciting and entertaining.
While hockey has been a strong sport among the colleges of north-eastern states such as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Michigan and even the next door neighbour, North Carolina, it has been slower to gain traction the further south you travel.
As Gene Sapakof (Post and Courier) and Sally Goggin (USA Field Hockey’s National Development Director) report, that has all changed in the past 18 months.
Two factors have played a large part in South Carolina’s move towards embracing hockey. The first of these was the intervention of a man who wanted his daughters to enjoy a sport that he had loved as a child. Jeff Pace moved from Long Island, New York to South Carolina in 2014 and, when he found no provision for hockey, he took things into his own hands and started a club – Low Country Field Hockey.
For the past year, he has been running clinics and camps and getting children excited about the sport. His aim is to make field hockey as big as lacrosse, the current number one sport for girls and women in the county. Pace is determined to keep costs low, so that the sport can be accessible to everyone.
“All I ask each week is for the players to bring their own mouth-guard,” says Pace. “I have the equipment or can get equipment at a reduced rate. All I need is a field. With this sport, we’re not asking people to make a big investment. Lacrosse is mostly in Mount Pleasant or Daniel Island but with field hockey, getting other parts of town involved is really the way to grow it.
“Each week a new player shows up,” Pace said. “My ultimate goal is to start a league but right now I’m not trying to make it too competitive – no scrimmages, though eventually we’ll get there. I want to introduce kids to the sport and so far the kids and their parents are loving it. What I’m most happy about is when a kid says, ‘I found a sport.’”
While Pace is working with the younger children, opportunities for college-aged players are also burgeoning.
After a 34 year break from the sport, Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina will be reinstating hockey and joining fellow Carolina Conference members Belmont Abbey and Limestone, along with South Atlantic Conference members Newberry and Queens, with a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II field hockey programme. Students will be recruited and scholarships offered as the team prepares to compete with other colleges at the highest level of college hockey.
The college will step into a full schedule of 18 games through the season. The head coach of Converse’s team will be Kelsey Lovelace. The former hockey forward turned coach has spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach at Limestone College, a team she helped to win the 2015 Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Championship.
“We want to develop our programme quickly and plan to be competing for a conference championship in just a few years," says Lovelace.
"The start of our season has been all about coming together as a team. We have so many international players that everyone's style of play is a little different so it has been an adjustment for all of us. Every day we aspire to build on the day before. Small successes are what build to our big ones and, what will lead us to growing as a programme. If we can stay focused on laying the foundation we will be a solid group in the up coming years."
For Jeff Pace, the news from Converse is very welcome: “That’s great for me to be able to tell these players, ‘Hey, you could go on to play in college.”