The sport of field hockey is changing dramatically. The evidence is under your feet.
Artificial turf fields are altering the game more than any training technique or new piece of equipment ever could.
The level playing field all sports covet isn't so level when one team is rolling the ball along a smooth, predictable surface and the other is trying to hack the ball out of a puddle.
Out of the 27 schools in Western New York that offer field hockey, six now have turf fields -- Amherst, Hamburg, Medina, Nichols, Orchard Park and Pioneer.
Meghan Smith is a returning All-Western New York center-midfielder for Hamburg, which just opened its new turf field last week. She played the first two seasons of her varsity career on grass, and now says playing on turf is a totally different game.
"You don't have all those obstacles of holes and weeds and when maintenance doesn't mow the field short enough," she said. "You have a lot better ball control and you can do more moves and dodges. I love it. It's amazing."
The green plastic grass rules, especially in the Northeast and especially in field hockey. Football, soccer and lacrosse also benefit, but in no sport is there a greater need for precision ball roll than field hockey.
Field hockey on turf is a much faster, skilled game. The ball runs truer and therefore it tests and rewards teams that can make smooth transitions. Players' shots off turf are more solid and direct. And the game is safer in part because the ball isn't being lifted off the turf.
It's a turf war that's left a real gap between the haves and the have-nots.
"The coaches that have it say, 'Oh, no, no, it's nothing,' but they're all smiling," said Iroquois coach and ECIC chairman Pete Tonsoline. "Here's the deal on my [grass] field, and I don't want to get in trouble: It's green and it's got white lines on it. But you should see the ball jump around."
So if field hockey on turf is like must-see TV, how has Williamsville North managed to win five of the last six Section VI titles without it?
"Do you want to know the honest truth? My ground crew has got my field down to a putting green," said Spartans coach Kris LaPaglia. "When we played Holland last week even the refs said they couldn't believe how fast the ball moved. It's absolutely beautiful. I would play on it every day if I could."
Don't look for any letdown at Williamsville North one year after reaching the New York State Class A finals. The Spartans (5-0) are deep, return a ton, and have solid performers up from JV.
Junior All-State midfielder Allie Ahern is a Regional All-America nominee coming off a 20-goal, 24-assist season. Senior Holly Flanigan is an All-State defender. Junior Goalie Jess Wess had 13 shutouts last season.
Williamsville South reached the state final four last year for the first time since 1998. The Billies are off to a 3-0 start, led by returning All-Western New York midfielder Alison Ferenczy, last year's leading scorer. South has plenty of other offensive threats, including Kate Kurzanski and Blair Pembleton. Eleven players participated in a summer camp at Syracuse. There is plenty of experience in net with four-year starter Megan Hull.
Barker is the defending Section VI Class C champion and has gone undefeated in the Niagara-Orleans League the last three seasons.
Senior Crystal Mott is leading the league in goals with 10 in four games. Sophomore goaltender Rachel Anderson is unscored upon this season. Last year she only gave up just three goals in the regular season. Center halfback Sienna Dear and attack Rebecca Quackenbush are returning All-Western New York first teamers.
Nichols returns the majority of the team that finished 15-5 last year while reaching the New York State Association of Independent Schools semifinals. Captains Katie Flachner and Jill Tokarczyk will be instrumental in the midfield. Junior Shannon Martin, a transfer from Williamsville South, will start at forward.
Kayla Slade of Iroquois started last year as a freshman. She has scored in each of the Chiefs' first three games this season. Goalie Grace Kinsella is one of nine seniors. Among the Chiefs' strengths is a junior class of Katie Augustine, Mikaela Fenn and Marissa Bedella.
Lancaster is a scrappy team carried by senior Melissa Kurzdorfer on attack. Defender Nikki Tolsma is back after missing half of last season with a broken wrist. Elise Porecca will hold down the center of the defense.
West Seneca West welcomes back its leading scorer, sophomore forward Chelsea Caballero.
In the circle
*Longtime Holland coach Pat Marvin retired over the summer after 32 years. Her overall record of 226-213-56 includes Section VI titles in 1986, 1989, 2004 and 2007. Marvin sent three players to NCAA Division I teams: Laurie Jones (Ball State), Kelly Smith (Temple) and Tara Schiltz (Central Michigan).
*The ECIC had no wiggle room for nonleaguers when the state reduced the number of regular season games from 18 to 16. With 17 teams in the league, each team plays the others once.
*Barker JV coach and technology teacher Jeff Costello has launched a Web site for Section VI field hockey. It's address is: www.section6.eb1.org.
Returning All-WNY players:
Meghan Smith, Hamburg
Allie Ahern, Wmsv. North
Alison Ferenczy, Wmsv. South
Sienna Dear, Barker
Rebecca Quackenbush, Barker
Class A: Williamsville North
Class B: Williamsville South
Class C: Barker