A group of first and second grade Needham youth field hockey players battle for a loose ball. Photo by Dina Hannigan.
By Mike Flanagan
Hometown Weekly Sports Editor
Needham High School has recently developed one of the top field hockey programs in Division I, qualifying for the state tournament each of the last three seasons.
With a shortened regular season and no state tournament on tap for varsity field hockey in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, schools needed to get creative in order to keep their athletes engaged and further develop their programs. Needham High School freshman field hockey coach Dina Hannigan may have done just that these last few months, founding Needham Youth Field Hockey.
"I started the program to give more girls a chance to play field hockey at a younger age but also with the hopes of offering more choices of youth sports for girls in town in general," said Hannigan when asked what sparked her idea. "I believe that nurturing character through youth sports reaches way beyond the pitch. My driving force was to create a safe and inclusive space, where young girls can empower each other and themselves, and in the process learn some field hockey."
Up until this year, organized field hockey was not offered to girls in Needham until they reached the seventh grade at Pollard Middle School. Historically, excellent varsity sports programs have been, and continue to be, bred through a strong and successful youth program. Compared to some of their neighboring rivals with youth programs such as Walpole and Wellesley, Needham High varsity field hockey was at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of player development. Thanks to Hannigan's newly-founded program, girls from grades 1-6 can now learn the game of field hockey and compete at a younger age, all while establishing connections with mentors.
"It is very remarkable," said Hannigan when asked about Needham varsity field hockey's success over the years despite the lack of a youth program. "I credit that to the stellar coaching at the varsity level by Stephanie Magni. In fact, when my idea was in its infancy, Stephanie and I spoke a lot about how great it would be for the program to be able to have girls start much younger. What I see at the freshmen level is that roughly a third of the girls are new to the program, yet they are extremely athletic. It got me thinking about how great it would be to get these girls playing much younger and be able to see their progress through seventh and eighth grade, and then feeding on through to the high school."
"In regards to the bridging the connection between the youth and the high school programs, several of the volunteer coaches are current players at the high school and they have been amazing. For the younger girls, they admire and look up to these older players so much."
Starting a youth sports program obviously brings about its challenges. Starting a program like this during the middle of a global pandemic, however, presents a different level of hardship. According to Hannigan, Needham Youth Field Hockey's enrollment and turnout has been very successful throughout its inaugural fall season - and their goal is to increase participation, post-COVID.
"It has been astonishing," said Hannigan. "I knew that the demand for another youth sport option for girls [in Needham] existed, but the turnout exceeded my expectations. I just needed to find the right time to make it happen. Because of COVID and size restrictions, I was turning families away every day, which I did not like doing. Astonishing to me that during a pandemic, we had five full teams from first to sixth grade and we were starting a waiting list. The reception has been amazing and we have gotten numerous accolades. I feel like the program is really starting to get a buzz and gain some momentum. All the extra work with COVID and all the long hours have made this extremely rewarding. Like we tell our athletes: 'Practice makes progress.'"
Families and athletes interested in Needham Youth Field Hockey can find more information on the program on Facebook and Instagram @needhamyouthfieldhockey, as well as by reaching out via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visiting www.needhamyouthfieldhockey.com.
For funny and incisive sports analysis as well as video highlights of games, follow Mike Flanagan on his personal Twitter and Instagram handles @flano0.