West Chester Rustin field hockey players speak out about supporting girls in sports no matter what stats say

The West Chester Rustin high school field hockey team didn’t have its best season in 2022.

There’s no blame to pass around or any specific reason to mark last year as a failure. That’s according to two senior captains who said they hope the school’s rising seniors and underclassmen learn from the Golden Knights most recent 3-15 record.

“It’s really inspiring to see teams like (Boiling Springs and Mechanicsburg) win states,” Grace Walsh said. “It gives us hope for the future of Rustin hockey. Even though Sam and I are leaving, there are some really good players on our team. Sometimes, I tell Sam in private, I genuinely think they can win, like, our league, if they really put in enough work and work together. Seeing stuff like winning for the first time, it’s, like, shocking.”

Boiling Springs, which went undefeated in 2022, and Mechanicsburg, both won each school’s first PIAA title in their respective class. Boiling Springs won Class 1A and Mechanicsburg won Class 2A.

Walsh, and her co-captain, Sam Ward, said they were inspired by watching both teams climb to the top.

“It definitely makes me feel like it is possible,” Ward said. “And, that the cycle can be broken. I’ve seen some teams rise above and become really good.”

It’s not all about hanging banners in the gymnasium, but also the sense of pride that goes along with remembering a successful time in history, Ward said.

“Watching that happen, it makes me hope,” she said.

The Rustin program was winning about 50 percent of its games in 2018 and 2019. Since 2020, there’s been a noticeable change. The program, which had an abbreviated season due to COVID in 2020, went 4-3. And, then in 2021, the program went 7-11. Last season, the team ended its year 3-15.

But, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s a story that happens every year, in which hundreds of athletes can relate.

College coaches looking to build rosters are often attracted to high school programs that have historically winning records. When a program doesn’t brand itself as a top competitor, generally, all the recruiting efforts fall on the athlete to take the initiative, Walsh said.  

“People usually at least know where Rustin is, which is always good,” she said. “Or, they know the Ches-Mont league because of (Downingtown-West) and Garnet Valley is right next to us. We’re not completely in the dark, but it is like, it’s hard when you’re going against a girl who is, like, player of the year.”

The Ches-Mont league, which is located in Chester County, churns out highly competitive field hockey athletes. West Chester Rustin is in District 1.

“A lot of the girls (at Rustin) want to have fun, but they do work hard,” Ward said. “But, when it gets to when we play a more competitive team than us, how hard we work sometimes isn’t enough. As a team we are all trying, but some of these girls who have the ability and are going to play D1, they outshine us. We become a school that people want to use as their senior night and we noticed this year, we were being used for more senior nights, as people were looking at our record.”

Walsh and Ward said they didn’t enjoy that feeling. But, they both still maintained a commitment to their teammates. They fear a bigger picture of girls giving up on sports when patterns like a more competitive team using them for a senior night continues. They are afraid that that’s going to drive players away from the game.

“I think a big part of being on a team is just making sure that even if you’re playing to have fun, you’re also playing for your teammates,” Walsh said. “If your teammate wants to make it to states, you’re going to play hard so they can try to do that.”

The reality is that there are 267 public high schools that have field hockey programs in Pennsylvania. Rustin is in Class 3A. There are 95 high schools that offer field hockey in Class 3A, according to the PIAA.

After a program qualifies for Districts, athletes must outperform their competitors to earn a spot as one team out of 16 in Class 3A to claim the title.

That perspective can get lost in the early stages of a season, Walsh said.

“The whole team knew where we fell in the league,” Walsh said. “I think we did a really good job of still trying to keep the girls’ attitudes positive going forward. We play very good teams. Just because we lost a game doesn’t mean we played badly.”

Ward agreed that they tried to keep the vibe positive, in order to show that playing highly competitive teams can improve their team.

“A lot of the underclassmen said we made the season fun even through all the losses,” Ward said. “We had 14 seniors. We have all played together in elementary school and middle school. We’ve been playing with our friends for a long time. Grace would send out positive notes and it would pick everyone’s spirits up that day.”

Walsh and Ward are continuing their academic and athletic pursuits at Division III schools. Walsh is going to Washington College and Ward to York College. Both said they felt they fielded a lot of questions from curious teammates about how they made their college pick and how to get recruited.

Attending college clinics and showcases were two of their top suggestions. Walsh said she’s a vocal leader, which she thinks helped solidify her signing to Washington. The program’s coach reached out to her after watching her play at the Limelight college showcase.

York also reached out to Ward, who plays club at WC Eagles, after seeing her at a showcase.

“I wanted to be known as a team player,” Ward said.  “Some of the girls would ball hog to show off. If a girl went up the field, I worked on off-ball movement to have her back. People told me to put that into play. Take a step and take my own moment when I have my own space on the field. I wanted to be a team athlete.”

She said that she and Walsh wanted to make each of their teammates feel that they mattered. What Ward learned throughout her high school field hockey career is going to go with her to college.

“Going into my freshman year (at York), I’m really excited to be part of a competitive team, and, like, work really hard,” Ward said. “And, even if I don’t get a lot of playing time, I still know that I’m among girls who think the same way that I do. I just read about Coach Katie saying it’s going to be an expectation to make it to the NCAA tournament. That makes me excited to know that I’m on a team that, like, wants to push themselves to be a competitive team and they can. I guess I’m going to bring my high school hopes and hard work with me to hopefully continue and support my new team.”

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