Dribbling on the FieldTurf surface at Johnny Unitas Stadium, junior forward Katie DeFilippo has to make sure each stroke with her stick is perfect. She has to use enough force to keep the ball moving on the slow surface, knowing that if she hits the ball too softly, she’ll run right past it. If she’s too far on top of the ball, the rubber and sand filling the field will cause it to stop its roll, ending her run toward the net and killing the Tigers’ offensive possession.
But when DeFilippo and her fellow Tigers travel to another stadium, they have to play in a completely different style. Most Division I field hockey programs play on Astroturf, a much quicker, smoother surface that speeds up the play of the game. On those fields, DeFilippo and her teammates have to adjust to the quickness that their opponents are already used to, leaving them behind in games that haven’t even started.
Johnny Unitas’ “surface is a lot thicker. The ball’s a lot slower. You can’t move it as fast and you can’t do certain moves that you can do on regular turf,” DeFilippo said. On road games “we have to re-learn how to play all over again. It’s completely different.”
This season marks the first time in four years the Tigers have played their home games at Johnny Unitas Stadium. And as the Tigers play in the stadium, they wait for the time when they have a field of their own.
For the last three seasons, the Tigers played their home games and practiced on Stevenson University’s AstroTurf field in Owings Mills, Md. The daily struggle of leaving around noon for practices and not returning until four or five in the afternoon was taking its toll on the team, prompting the decision to return to Towson.
When the team originally left for Stevenson, the University started making plans to build a field hockey field at Towson. But with an AstroTurf field and watering system estimated to cost between $1.3 and $1.5 million, according to Nance Reed, senior associate athletic director for internal operations, it has been difficult to raise the funds needed to build the facility.
“This project, of all of our top fundraising projects, this is our top project. So it’s the one that as our monies come in, it’s going to be the first one to get funded,” Reed said. “Is it possible? Yeah, I think it is possible … there are some irons in the fire out there.”
The team has already received a promise from University President Robert Caret of $500,000 once other funds have been raised. But endeavors like this, a few large donations are needed to build the facility, and it’s been a struggle to find the donors. Generally, teams rely on donations from past athletes. But since many past field hockey players go on to jobs in education, according to Reed, large donations are difficult to come by.
On the field, the biggest problems for the team show up during penalty corners, one of the better scoring opportunities during a field hockey game. One player, the inserter, is allowed a free pass to her teammates lined up along an arc around the net. Four opposing defenders and the goalie are lined up in the net waiting for the pass to come out before they can defend the ball.
For Janine Kovach, the Tigers’ inserter, the pass has to come out as fast as possible so the defenders don’t have time to stop the shot.
“It was very hard at first because we were trying to push [the ball], which is what we would want to do, but it wasn’t working out,” Kovach said. “Here, I actually have to hit the ball. It’s a lot less accurate for the most part and a lot bouncier, which makes it hard for the battery up top to stop it. So you’ve got to kind of pace it and try to keep it as accurate as possible.”
The Tigers have found success against visiting teams this season, who have to make the adjustment of playing on the slower surface. At home, the Tigers hold a record of 3-2. Even though playing on the surface has been a detriment, playing in front of a home crowd has been a welcomed change.
“Since we are home, we’ve had a lot more fans, which has really helped,” DeFilippo said. “Before at Stevenson, no one from the school could come, so we were all alone. But since we’re here, we get a lot of people cheering us on, which really motivates us. We don’t want to let the fans down and we don’t want to let our team down.”
But as the team tries to move forward, bringing in top recruits is a struggle for head coach Michelle Webber. Elite players expect a Division I program to have an Astroturf field, but Webber can’t promise when that will happen.
“I would say we have lost a few recruits once they’ve come and seen [our facilities]– they love the stadium, but they’ve seen that the surface was FieldTurf surface and they’ve opted to go to other schools that have the regular surface,” she said. “We’re still getting some good players who are willing to take a chance on Towson, but I believe we have to work harder to get those players and we have to pay a lot more to get those players to come here.”
Hopes of getting a new field built are high for Webber and Reed, though the players seem less optimistic that they’ll ever get to play on it. Moving forward, it’s going to be a waiting game to see if the right donor comes along who wants to help the program.
“It’s kind of like love a little bit,” Reed said. “If you’re really looking for it, you’re probably not going to find it. But you never know what all those relationships are going to create for you.”