To think, Taylor Ruscillo would've probably ended up playing soccer. The Carle Place sophomore said that's the sport she'd most likely have chosen when she started high school, had her interests not been intercepted by the Long Island Field Hockey Association as a fifth-grader.
Field hockey isn't usually offered by the schools until seventh grade, but camps and clubs are available to children looking to get an early jump; LIFHA is among them, and many of the island's top high school players got their start there.
The program, sponsored by U.S. Field Hockey, started in 1932 as a way of introducing the sport to young women before college, said Carol Nesdill, who coaches Carle Place and has presided over LIFHA since 1990. They started a junior league eight years ago, accepting kids as early as fourth grade, and LIFHA now has 23 teams and 317 athletes. “Kids can start with soccer in kindergarten,” Nesdill said, “but they don't get kids into field hockey until middle school. We had to try to do something about that.”
Ruscillo said there are definite benefits of getting into the sport early, aside from the obvious ones.
“Field hockey is a weird game in terms of the rules,” she said. “A lot of people get confused by some of the rules and it's a tough to learn when you first get started. So being exposed to it early, you get an advantage because you're comfortable by the time you reach varsity.”
Teammate Deirdre Hickey echoed that – though she said field hockey would've likely been her sport of choice anyway since both her sisters played. “It's difficult because it's unlike any other sport I've played before,” said Hickey, who picked it up in sixth grade and was a part of LIFHA. “It takes a while to get used to it, but because of the program, I was getting it by the time I was JV in ninth grade. Juniors was a really good experience.”
(Note: Both girls agreed that field hockey is a superior sport to soccer and they're happy with their decisions.)
The LIFHA juniors program, Nesdil said, includes a five-game travel schedule and an opening day clinic at Adelphi, set up by Panthers coach Gloria O'Connor. (Adelphi has one of the top Division II women's lacrosse and field hockey programs in the nation.)
“The first year we did it, 376 girls showed up to Adelphi,” Nesdill said. “It's such a thrill for the little ones to interact with the college players and get demonstrations... A lot of them are like, 'Wow, I can get a scholarship?'”
It also helps build camaraderie, the coach said. Most of players on Carle Place and many of the Garden City girls were in the program and came up together, so they'd been familiar with each other long before reaching high school. This summer, 168 kids participated.
* Thanks to Deirdre and Taylor for taking the time to talk with me. And +5 to Taylor for stepping her quote game up in just a few months. I first interviewed her in the spring during the Class B softball semifinals. She was a freshman then and she'd driven in the game's deciding run and played good defense in centerfield. Great game, but the interview was... let's just say she was nervous. She remembered. At the end of this interview, she asked, “I did better than last time, right? I'm getting better.” No question. And +10 to both of you for letting a co-worker who shall not be named know that field hockey > soccer.