Fit and Fast on a Billiard-Table Field

David Gonzales

Field hockey, the longest-running women's varsity sport at Stanford, traces back to the 12th century. Originating in the British Isles, hockey took its name from the French hoquet, for shepherd's crook, and medieval craftsmen liked to boast about favorite players in the stained-glass billboards of their day.

In more recent times, the British army carried field hockey throughout its far-flung Commonwealth, including India and Pakistan, where all regulation hardwood sticks still are fashioned by hand. When they come slashing down on the Varsity Hockey Turf Field at Stanford, spray from the carefully watered synthetic surface dissipates in gossamer arcs--a balletic slow-motion background for players tearing past in maroon-and-white blurs.

As they drive and dribble, the players call to one another with peculiar names--"Chi," short for bansunkichi pear, or "Finn," for Finnish potato.

Since the mid-'70s at Stanford, freshmen have been given prized nicknames by upperclass teammates, who scour grocery bins in search of just the right fruit, vegetable or spice monikers. Golf pro Sara Sanders, '94, a former Cardinal field hockey star, was dubbed "Ice" (iceberg lettuce) by teammates who thought her moves were way cool.

And this season, there were plenty of new names to consider. The freshman-laden team has only one senior on the active roster--co-captain Michelle Scott, who played in all 18 games last season and made the Northern Pacific All-Tournament Team. After four years as champions of the NorPac conference, Stanford came in second to Cal last season--a finish this year's highly competitive squad does not want to repeat. The Cardinal women play on the premier field in their conference--a billiard-table-smooth greenery donated three years ago by Kathy Levinson, '77, and her partner, Jennifer Levinson. With no discernible grain to bump against, balls hug the carpet and players can hone a wicked passing game. What's more, change-of-direction injuries have been virtually eliminated.

Coach Sheryl Johnson, MA '81, scouts for speed in high school recruits and describes the team's style as "fit and fast." There's no slacking on her field, and players aren't allowed to wear hats or visors that might slice hair-widths off their per-ipheral vision. If freshmen want to know why Johnson herself gets to wear a cap at practices, upperclass players have a ready reply: "She's earned the right. She's an Olympian."

Johnson represented the United States on the 1980, 1984 and 1988 Olympic teams and won a bronze at the '84 Summer Games in Los Angeles. At Stanford, she has led the Cardinal to eight conference titles and been named--eight times--NorPac Coach of the Year.

"Hard pass, ladies--harder," she is apt to yell when the little white balls slow to a mere streak on the unseasonably green field. Come playoff time, they'll be off the radar.