Home court advantage takes on additional importance in hockey

The number of synthetic fields in Maine is on the rise, as is the number of teams practicing and playing their home games on soft surfaces ideal for passing, shooting and ball handling. Michael J. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Krista Chase didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.

Last September, she took her Mount Ararat hockey team on the road to take on neighboring rival Brunswick. The Eagles, playing on artificial turf, had not practiced on the type of turf that awaited them across the Androscoggin River. They lost 2-1.

This year, Mount Ararat opened the season on the grass surface at Camden Hills. The Eagles won 6-0. They were ready. Chase made sure of that.

“It was ugly (in 2022), it was a terrible game,” Chase said. “(We) practiced on the grass the three days before we went and played (Camden Hills). … I was more prepared, and we were fine.”

It’s a situation that faces all turf hockey teams. The number of synthetic fields in Maine is on the rise, as is the number of teams practicing and playing their home games on soft surfaces ideal for passing, shooting and ball handling. Games on grass, where the action is slower and the ball’s behavior is less predictable, become a change of pace for those teams, and can be difficult to deal with.

Mount Ararat field hockey coach Krista Chase talks to her team after a 2022 game in Messalonskee. “It’s easier to get up for matches on the grass, the ball is flying, everyone is playing their best, it’s more fun to watch, and it’s more fun to train,” she says. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“It’s completely different. There’s also a mental side to it as well. It’s easier to get up for games on the grass, the ball is flying, everyone is playing their best, it’s fun to watch, it’s more fun to coach,” Chase said. “But we have to be careful. While most of my matches have been on grass this year, there are many matches, some of which may be very important, on grass. “So we have to plan carefully for those.”

Grass teams that are accustomed to a slow pace have to adapt to a fast game when playing on an artificial surface. But for a skilled team, this adjustment is less difficult.

“It’s not that difficult. I think it just depends on the team and the individuals,” Gorham coach Becky Manson said. “For us, we’re a very fast team, so we can adapt to (turf) very quickly.”

Grass has been the standard surface for hockey in Maine, with only a few turf fields available in the state. That has changed in recent years. At least 27 programs now play their home games on artificial turf fields, including 16 that have switched to artificial turf since 2018. Ten of them have done so since 2021.

Twenty-six of the 50 teams in Classes A and B play on grass, making regular season play a matter of constant adjustment between surfaces — and the types of games they allow.

“Every little part of your individual and tactical game changes when you change surfaces,” says Bedford field hockey coach Kaitlyn Tremberth. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Every little part of your individual and tactical game changes when you change surfaces,” said Bedford coach Kaitlyn Tremberth, who guided the Tigers for four years on turf before Waterhouse Field installed turf in 2018. “How to beat a grass team in about 24 hours, it’s very difficult.”

On grass, the sport has transformed into a faster, more athletic game characterized by quick passing, sophisticated stick skills, and the potential to develop a scoring threat in an instant. What Skowhegan coach Paula Doughty calls the “90s game” of hard shots to send the ball up the field in hopes it will find its way to a player near the goal has been phased out.

“Coaches like me who have coached for a long time, 10 years ago, we had to relearn how to coach,” Doughty said. “It’s not a grass game anymore. Most of my kids, 10 months a year, play on the grass (with club teams). It’s a grass game. It’s a skill game.”

On grass, this sophisticated game becomes objectionable. For players who have honed their skills on grass, they need to be prepared to play in a different way.

“It’s definitely tough. The speed of the ball goes down a lot and you definitely have to adapt to it,” said Eliza Doyon, junior fullback and midfielder at Bedford. “On grass, you don’t have bumps or everything, and dig in like you do on grass. This spoils a lot of things. You have to put more force into the passes, which we don’t usually have to do on grass.

Bedford goalkeeper Cadence Gullett dives to stop a shot in last year’s game against Cheverus. “It’s a different kind of kick,” she says of defending the ball. If I’m kicking on the grass, I use my toe. If I’m kicking on grass, I use the inside of my foot. “It’s a completely different angle.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Even goalkeeping requires a different approach on grass.

“I like to do a lot of tackling and get down on the ground, but … a lot of times I’ll go and get stuck on the turf where I can’t,” Bedford senior goalie Cadence Goulet said. “It’s a different type of kick. If I’m kicking on the grass, I use my toe. If I’m kicking on the grass, I use the inside of my foot. It’s a completely different angle.”

Turf teams have to prepare as best they can.

“We try to practice on grass, but our grass field can’t be short enough, so that makes it difficult to even practice at all,” Freeport coach Marcia Wood said. “You can’t really accomplish anything if you can’t move the ball at all.”

Wood said teams that use turf often have an advantage over those that don’t.

“Oh yeah, sure. We have to spend part of the warm-up period getting used to the grass and learning how it works,” she said. “Playing on grass definitely gives you that advantage. “You’re used to it and you know how to play it.”

Freeport High’s Reed Bruscia catches the ball during practice in August. Ball handling and passing are more accurate on artificial turf pitches. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Each sport takes on a different dimension when moving from grass to turf, but grass hockey is completely transformed.

“Lacrosse, not so much, because they throw it up in the air. Football, barely at all, except maybe the overall foot speed you might have, doesn’t impact the ball as much,” Greeley athletic director David Shapiro said. “But how does it impact the ball? “On the puck, and everything on the floor in hockey, it’s a big difference.”

Cape Elizabeth boys soccer coach Ben Raymond agreed.

“In football, I don’t think it has a big impact on the game or the way it is played,” he said. “I think hockey should only be played on grass fields. It’s probably going to slow down a lot on a grass field, unless the field that’s already been maintained is cut really short, really narrow grass.”

Even teams that play their home matches on grass can find themselves needing to adapt. Skowhegan Field has earned a reputation for being as close to grass as a grass surface can get. And when the River Hawks’ players — many of whom play on club and out-of-state teams on turf in the offseason — play an upcoming game on a shaggier field, Doughty changes her drills to make sure her players are ready.

“I have to teach two games,” she said. “I’ll say: ‘Okay, today we’re going to practice on the grass.’ One of the grass practices is to go around (the defender, looking up) and lead him. And on the grass, you can use skills. You use short, little passes and gentle dribbles, and you can’t do that on grass because they can pick it up straight away. They are two completely different toys, which is confusing for kids.

For this reason, some grass teams believe they have an advantage when they host a grass team.

Winslow field hockey coach Mary Beth Burgoyne, right, instructs a player during a game in 2019. “I love the home advantage,” Burgoyne says. “It’s grass, and people should come here and play on the grass.”

“When Thomas (College) first got the turf, a lot of people would go and play some of their regular season home games there,” said Winslow coach Mary Beth Burgoyne, who led the Black Raiders to the Class B title in 2019. “I’ve been asked more than once: Why don’t you take your home games to Thomas?” “Because I like home advantage,” I said. I love my field, it’s grass, and people should come here and play on grass. “I don’t want to give up my home turf.”

Manson, the Gorham coach, said it’s not always easy for a turf team to find a turf field in good enough condition for practice.

“If you’re a grass team and you have to find a piece of land to practice on before you play a grass team, that’s a huge disadvantage in my opinion,” she said. “I think it’s worse for grass teams that are already on grass now and don’t have a good grass surface to practice on before they come and play a grass team.”

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