Back in the Game

In the fall of my freshman year, I arrived in Cambridge with a lot of baggage. The family station wagon was nearly bursting with my hastily packed belongings, ranging from the encyclopedically practical A History of the Modern World by R.R. Palmer--seldom used, unfortunately, because I now study American history--to the frivolous foot-long tube of gumballs my roommates recall fondly to this day. Missing from this plethora of odds and ends, however, was my field-hockey stick.

Pulling a Michael Jordan: The author, shown in action, rediscovers the invigorating pleasures of an extracurricular activity pursued "basically strictly for fun."
Photograph by Stu Rosner

My field-hockey career had been a formative high-school experience, but one I abandoned junior year when the competitiveness, the yearlong commitment, and team dynamics soured it into a chore. I tossed my stick, my shin guards, and other remnants of the sport into the black hole of my basement and rarely looked back. Although I missed the game itself, especially when fall afternoons reminded me of those previously spent on the field, I never wanted to return to the program.

This fall, I returned to Harvard a seasoned junior. I had long traded the 18-hour drive from the Midwest--my dad promised that the exhausting first trip would be the last--for a two-and-a-half-hour flight, and I could now stand to be parted from some of the books, notebooks, and room decorations that had made my freshman dorm room feel like home. I carried a more reasonable amount of luggage--relatively speaking: two suitcases, a pillow, a backpack, and my field-hockey stick.


My return to field hockey began sophomore year, in October, when a friend and I took advantage of a beautiful Saturday afternoon to venture across the Charles River to watch a varsity field-hockey game at Jordan Field. She came as a novice spectator, marveling at the idiosyncrasies of a sport that still remains foreign to many; I came to satisfy a seasonal longing for afternoon practices following confining days of classes and to watch two of my high-school teammates who now played for Yale, the opposing varsity team. It was the first game I had attended since high school--and the first one in which I was a spectator, rather than a player. It hardly mattered that I wasn't on the field. Just being in the vicinity of field hockey was an invigorating experience. Explaining the rules and plays to my friend, cheering for the team, and seeing my old teammates out on the field suddenly made me realize that I had never truly given up on the sport.

When we turned to leave--after Harvard had shut out Yale, incidentally--I noticed a group of girls get up from the stands. Wearing Harvard jerseys and black field-hockey kilts, a uniform almost identical to the varsity team's, and carrying sticks, they were unmistakably field-hockey players. I spotted a friend among them, who told me she was playing on the junior varsity team and they were getting ready to take the field for their own game. Her obvious enthusiasm for the program was contagious, and when I confessed I missed the sport, she encouraged me to think about JV for next year. Inspired, I told her I would consider it.

To be honest, I was skeptical at first about making a place for hockey in my busy Harvard life. But a draining sophomore year changed my mind. When I struggled with a heavy course load or a stressful day at work, I yearned for a few hours of release. I watched my roommates go off to wind-ensemble rehearsal or cheerleading practice and return refreshed to their evening's work. No matter how much I enjoyed reporting for the Crimson, writing on deadline or editing late into the night lacked the same kind of low-pressure atmosphere I felt I needed to bring balance to a hectic schedule.

Sophomore year also intensified my feeling of isolation. Harvard can be a lonely place, one where competition and individual discipline are often valued above team effort or community. As a sophomore, I was trying to adjust to a new House and a new concentration, struggling to carve out my own place at the College. I rushed Delta Gamma, one of the campus sororities, in the spring because I was attracted by the sense of community that sororities try to build for women on campus. But although I enjoyed meeting the sisters, and although I count several among my closest friends, I never felt at home in that setting. My heart was elsewhere, and it was only when I decided to give field hockey another chance and walked onto the field for the first JV field-hockey practice this past September that I finally found it.

Even though I was slightly intimidated when I arrived, my insecurities vanished from the moment I stepped onto the turf. In the surrounding darkness--the JV team usually practices at night, when varsity teams have finished for the day--Jordan Field shone bright with stadium lights, isolating us from the rest of the world. For those two hours of practice, my work and my classes receded into the background of my mind as years of hockey training emerged from hibernation and awakened my player's instinct. I was surprised at how naturally my skills started to return to me. I began to remember the exhilaration of scrimmage and the freewheeling feeling of moving a ball toward goal, and the simple joy of playing a sport just for the love of the game.

Photographs by Stu Rosner

For me and for a lot of my teammates, JV field hockey has become a welcome alternative to intense academic and extracurricular activities at the College. Unlike most organizations at Harvard, JV field hockey has a simple and open approach to membership. Because the team doesn't function as a feeder for the varsity team, it prides itself on being open to people of all levels of experience. Joining was as easy as expressing interest; there were no tryouts or cuts, just standard NCAA paperwork, a physical, and a commitment to practice and play.

The program is also a welcome contrast to the preprofessional, highly competitive clubs on campus. My teammate Bessie Dewar '02 put it best: "There's something about a team sport like JV field hockey that makes it different from most other activities we engage in at Harvard. It's basically strictly for fun."

Some teammates are former varsity athletes who felt overwhelmed by that significant time commitment and chose to play JV instead. "I came to Harvard set on sailing," says Daphne Reeve '02, who was a member of that varsity team for two years before switching to JV field hockey. "I had a really good time, but it was too time-consuming." Lauren Hirshon '03, the friend who initially encouraged me to join the team, throws javelin for the varsity track team, but she plays JV field hockey because she misses team sports. Others, like me, are players who never thought about competing at the varsity level, but who were looking for the opportunity to play without an overwhelming commitment to daily practices and weekends of travel.

As I'd hoped, the team also functions as a wonderful community. By joining, I have met many women whom I would not encounter in my usual spheres: House, concentration, or other extracurriculars. "It's a group of people that's so random," says Dewar. "Our love for the game is not apparent from other aspects of our lives here, and it's nice to come together with a motley crew."

There is something incredibly rewarding in finding a community of people who share your passion. Field hockey is no glory sport, at least in the United States. To play, you have to love the game, its special peculiarities included. A T-shirt I own reads: "Field Hockey--Play it and you'll understand." It seems that whenever I don the shirt someone always pauses to ask me, "Understand what?" When I wore the shirt to a practice this year, however, a teammate told me how much she liked it, no questions asked. I knew that she understood.

Since I have become part of the JV field-hockey community, I have felt integrated into Harvard in a new and exciting way. It is a sentiment my teammates echo. "It's possible to be at the College and to be totally at sea, not feeling part of a team or a community," Katie Heller '02 says. "JV is enough of a team and a community without being completely overwhelming." On the field, we speak the universal language of hockey and take pride in each other's accomplishments. Off the field, whether in vans on the ride back from away games or at team dinners, my teammates have shared with me valuable advice about writing a thesis, applying for fellowships, and taking the LSATs. On one memorable ride to Brown, the entire van came alive with a fiery discussion of the Harry Potter books and the first feature film, and so I discovered among my teammates the die-hard Potter fans I had been searching for at Harvard.

And then there are those moments that have made the season especially memorable to me. Traveling to games outside of Cambridge, I had the rare opportunity to enjoy the landscape of New England beyond the Yard. Watching the mosaic of changing foliage from a van window on the way to western Massachusetts, I was reminded of how rarely I stop to enjoy the beautiful river walk outside my window. I also had the chance to play one game when my father was in town on a business trip. He and my roommate sat in the stands during our rematch against the Springfield College team that had defeated us the previous weekend. They watched as I scored the goal that broke the scoreless tie. I was just happy to contribute something to a team that has made the difference in my junior year here, and to have shared that experience with two of my fans in the stands.

As someone who feels especially grateful for the opportunity to be part of a JV team, I believe strongly that the University should continue to support and recognize JV sports. During the course of the season, my teammates and I arrived to practice several times only to find the gate to the stadium locked or the stadium lights turned off, costing us the evening--something that would hardly happen to a varsity team. "Harvard is so proud of their 41 varsity teams, but to maintain that position they also need to respect JV and club teams," says Daphne Reeve. "Even if they're not feeder teams, they're all part of the larger athletic community."

I spoke recently with Bob Scalise, the new athletic director, about the role of JV teams at Harvard. Fortunately, he agrees that they are a vital part of the Harvard athletic landscape. "I think JV sports provide a great opportunity for broad participation in the intercollegiate program at Harvard," he told me. "There are people who come back as alumni who really value the fact that we were able to provide them with the opportunity to play competitively, even though they were not varsity athletes."

My teammate Katie Heller, who has played on the team since her freshman year, describes her time on JV as one of her best experiences at Harvard. "People choose their entire day in college, and the fact that people choose to do JV field hockey speaks for itself," she says. After two years of sampling the best activities at Harvard--the Crimson, the CHANCE tutoring program, my job at the Davis Center for Russian Studies--I can appreciate her words.

Returning from a hiatus of nearly three years was an intimidating venture at first. I knew only one person on the team--my friend Lauren. Her advice was invaluable. Joining JV field hockey has been one of the smartest things I have done at Harvard. It has brought a balance to my life that I thought might be impossible in the hectic and often isolating environment here. It has given me the opportunity to meet a wonderful group of people who otherwise would have floated by in the Yard, their paths at the College never intersecting with mine. And it has made me regret, in the most bittersweet of ways, that I left my field-hockey stick in the basement when I drove off to Harvard my freshman year.

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Eugenia Levenson '03 is a history and literature concentrator, focusing on the United States.

Read more articles by Eugenia V. Levenson
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