Nov. 19, 2009

Watch Friday's Semifinals Live at
Maryland vs. Princeton (2 p.m.)
| Virginia vs. North Carolina (4:30 p.m.)

Semifinal Notebook: Through Rain Or Shine
Semifinal Preview: For Virginia, Future's Bright, But Present's Brighter
Jennings Triplets: One Journey, Three Paths

By Roger van der Horst
Special to

WINSTON-SALEM — Three Atlantic Coast Conference teams in the Division I field hockey final four would put the capital of American collegiate field hockey where, exactly?

College Park, Md., the home of top-ranked Maryland, makes sense. The Terrapins (20-0), after all, are gunning for their fifth NCAA championship in six years.

Or Chapel Hill, N.C., where 2007 champion and third seed North Carolina resides. Charlottesville, Va., though, might have something to say about that, having sent second-seeded Virginia to the semifinals.

Or right here in Winston-Salem, where Wake Forest, who won three consecutive championships between 2002-04 but did not advance this year, is hosting the Division I championships Friday-Sunday.

No, no and no.

Try Emmaus, Penn., a borough of about 11,500 south of Allentown.

"It's like THE center of field hockey in Pennsylvania," said Christina Bortz, a senior forward for fourth-seeded Princeton.

And that would pretty much make Emmaus (pronounced eh-MAY-us) the game's collegiate capital. More than 40 percent of the 2009 final four players come from Pennsylvania.

Emmaus High alone has produced Bortz, Princeton teammate Erin Jennings, plus Jennings' triplet sister Rachel, and Shelly Edmonds, both of whom play for Virginia. (The other triplet, Tara Jennings, plays for Duke.)

The mother of this hockey Mecca is Sue Butz-Stavin, who's coached for 34 seasons at the high school and recently reached 700 career victories. She was featured in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd."

The Emmaus connection, however, only touches the surface of how deeply small towns across Pennsylvania have influenced the game by getting girls started early. This final four includes three players from Blue Bell, two from North Wales, two from Shavertown, two from Oley and two from Mount Joy, not to be confused with Mountain Top, which is also represented.

In the semifinals, all of these Pennsylvania-bred players will meet again when Maryland faces Princeton (16-2) at 2 p.m. Friday, followed by North Carolina (18-2) against Virginia (20-3) at 4:30 p.m. at Wake Forest's Kentner Stadium.

"Pennsylvania has historically had very good coaching," said UNC coach Karen Shelton, a graduate of West Chester State College (now university) in Pennsylvania.

The school had a strong physical education department, Shelton said. "A lot of the PE majors that came out of West Chester State went into the school system and either started or coached field hockey programs."

Senior Melanie Brill, whose sister Teryn followed her from Oley to Chapel Hill, remembers first picking up a hockey stick at age 5 or 6 and falling in love with the game.

"Almost every little girl in Oley falls in love with field hockey," she said. "At my high school, we don't even have football. We just don't have the numbers for it. Field hockey is our dominant sport."

If Oley Valley High School wins a championship, "we have a parade down Main Street," Brill said. In a township of 3,500, she noted, there aren't too many other streets. "Everybody knows who's on the field hockey team. They'll congratulate you in the grocery store."

It's part of family culture in small-town Pennsylvania to get your kids playing organized sports, said Mary Ginder, the mayor of Mount Joy, not to be confused with a mountain, which it is not. (The name stems from the olde English name Mountjoy.)

Ginder's daughter Anne, now 35, played field hockey. Now the mayor's oldest granddaughter, Samantha, 16, does, too.

"Sports teams seem to hold the family together," said Ginder, 67. "It gives them an interest in the family as a unit, and they always seem to support the children in any which way.

"If you go to a restaurant, if you go to church on Sunday mornings, you hear people talking about (field hockey)."

The sport is so pervasive in her hometown of Sweet Valley, Penn., that Virginia senior Traci Ragukas said, "there were, like, a hundred girls" on the junior high team. "That was kind of what everybody did," she said. "When we were little, we were all like, 'Oh, when I get bigger, I want to play field hockey.'"

Parents aren't immune from going with the crowd, either, Princeton's Bortz said.

"It's funny. At first, I was very hesitant about playing because I had always been in to soccer," Bortz said. "My mom actually made me play my first season because all of the other girls were going to play and all of my other friends were going to. So, she said that I only had to try it for one year and after that I didn't have to play. But I clearly liked it, because I never stopped playing."

Bortz wasn’t the only one and this weekend, some of those little girls – now young women – will take home the most coveted prize that field hockey has to offer: A championship trophy.