With 154 wins, women’s field hockey sets record: A triumph for Title IX?

The Watertown (Mass.) High School Raiders have not lost a single game since 2008. Their record-breaking streak comes at a time of emerging prevalence of women's sports in the US. 

Courtesy of Ally McCall
The Watertown, Mass., High School Raiders pose with team alums after winning their 154th game in a row on Oct. 21, 2015. Under head coach Eileen Donahue, they have not lost a single game since 2008.

It may not be "Friday Night Lights," but one high school field hockey team has become a great source pride for their Massachusetts community, and arguably a testament to the success of Title IX gender equity funding.

The Watertown High School girls field hockey team broke the national record for winning streaks Wednesday, winning their 154th game in a row, 6-0. As a comparison, the longest National Hockey League winning streak, for the record, is 17 games by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Raiders have not lost a single game since Nov. 12, 2008, taking the record from Eastern High School of Voorhees, N.J., whose field hockey squad broke the previous record in 2005.

“It’s unreal,” senior Ally McCall, a co-captain on the team, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s such an unbelievable feeling, to achieve something like this.”

Some of the girls on the team have been playing field hockey since the third grade, Ally adds, so their victory was a culmination of something that has always been a part of their lives. As Title IX was designed to promote gender equality in education, subsequent funding for girls' sports in particular has had a range of positive side effects. 

In addition to improved academic performance, girls who play sports in high school are likely to be more confident and less likely to suffer from depression or negative body perception. Ally can certainly attest to these perks.

“It’s great being on a team and having so many people around to support you,” she says. “When I was a freshman, I was shy and nervous but I had this group around me, helping me through hard times. They really built my confidence up.”

After the big win Wednesday, do they feel like superstars? Not so much, says Michaela Antonellis, also a senior and co-captain of the Raiders. “We’re just athletes playing a sport.”

For Michaela and Ally, it’s all about the team.

“The team is very special to us. We’re all so closely knit,” Michaela says. “Last year we had to cope with a million different new lineups, but this year we’re really coming together.”

As for the secret strategy behind such a colossal winning streak? Carpe diem.

“All these years we never focused on the past or the future, we focused on what’s in front of us,” says Eileen Donahue, who has been a coach for 30 years. The long haul tactic had always been living in the moment.

For Coach Donahue, a physical education teacher at the Watertown Elementary School, breaking the record was never a conscious goal. It was a brief topic of discussion at the beginning of the season, during the first practice, and then it was never discussed again.

“Why would we focus on something in the future,” she asks, “when we’re very, very aware that it could be taken away at any moment.”

Her players share this grounded attitude. Breaking the record was never the priority, and neither was winning, Ally recalls. “Each game, each practice was my priority,” she says.

In 2013, Donahue was awarded Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association. She has seen 590 wins in the span of her career. In the last couple of years, she has taken up coaching the girls’ lacrosse team as well.

“Coaching is about developing players,” Donahue tells the Monitor. “We do our best to bring to our players to a different place and sometimes it’s quick. Sometimes it takes a little longer. Overall, [the experience] is special to everyone.”

The Raiders have won six state titles in a row. This season, they only have one more game to go before the playoffs.

Field hockey is an emerging sport in the US, as women’s sports in general have gained popularity in the past decade.

Domestically, field hockey is dominated by women, USA Field Hockey spokeswoman Teryn Brill says, mostly on the East Coast, from Maine to the Carolinas. “Historically, the sport is pretty foreign – the Netherlands, Argentina, etc.,” she tells the Monitor. “We’re still trying to build the popularity here.”

In July, the women’s national team took home the gold medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto, qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.

“The hype of the sport right now is really remarkable,” Brill says. “With the women’s success comes support from the country. Similar to women’s soccer, it’s kind of a bandwagon experience.”

The emergence of women’s sports, according to Women’s Sports Foundation CEO Deborah Slaner Larkin, is a direct result of Title IX.

Enacted in 1972, Title IX was created to prevent sex and gender discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal grants. This meant that colleges and universities that receive federal funding under Title IX must allocate just as much funding for their women’s programs as they do for men’s programs.

Since then, the number of girls participating in high school sports grew from fewer than 300,000 in the early 1970s to more than 3.2 million in 2012. Today, more than one in every three girls play varsity sports. Before 1972, the ratio was one in 27.

Participation in sports, Larkin explains, directly benefits education.

“Sports is a vehicle in education that helps promote better grades and higher attendance rates,” says Larkin, who used to play field hockey herself. “Through sports, girls are involved in less delinquent behavior, drug use, and fewer cases of unwanted teen pregnancies.”

Thanks in part to Title IX, Ally and Michaela will get the chance to extend their field hockey careers in college – with scholarships. Come next fall, Michaela will be headed to Stonehill College, in Easton, Mass., and Ally to the University of Vermont, in Burlington.

But without empirical data that measures the Title IX compliant, it's likely that most schools do not adhere to every stipulation. 

“Our job is to educate the leaders in communities, parents, and athletes themselves that if they’re seeing that [girls’ teams] are not getting the same attention as boys’, it’s ok for them to question why," Larkin says. 

On matters of inequity, it seems that Watertown High School is doing just fine.

“Here, everybody supports everybody,” Ally says. Thursday night, the girls on the team are planning to attend a boys’ soccer game, Michaela adds.

That is, after their 4:15 p.m. field hockey practice.

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