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Girls’ teams have grown in stature over the past decade

Nansemond River’s activities and athletic director Nancy Richey remembers when high-school girls were treated as second-class athletes. She remembers, because she played and coached during that time; and she’s worked to change it.

In high school, Richey played basketball and softball. In college at Longwood, she played basketball and golf. She started as a high school coach in 1975, coaching basketball and tennis, “even though I had no experience in it,” Richey said.

At the college level, women’s sports were in a completely different world from where they are today.

When Richey was a student at Longwood, there was no such thing as an athletic scholarship for females. College teams were filled out basically the same way high school teams were.

Richey entered her teaching and coaching career during a transformational time. In the mid-‘70s, Title IX was in its early steps. Richey came to Suffolk High School in the early ‘80s and coached softball and volleyball. She came to Nansemond River when it opened in 1990 and coached basketball and volleyball for the Warriors before moving to her current position.

Some girls’ sports, such as basketball, volleyball and tennis, played in “non-traditional” seasons. There weren’t as many sports available to girls. Coaches of female teams were paid less — Richey remembers it being about half of what coaches of male teams were paid.

“My hours are the same. We play the same amount of games and have the same amount of practices. It was all the same as the guys’ teams. Fortunately, Suffolk listened and over the next couple years, salary adjustments were made,” Richey said.

“When I started coaching in 1975, there was a big disparity between boys’ and girls’ sports,” Richey said.

It took until the mid-‘90s to align the seasons for the girls’ sports to be the same as they are for the corresponding boys’ sports.

There were many problems caused by having, for instance, girls’ basketball played in the fall and boys’ basketball played during the “normal” basketball season.

Another big issue had a major impact on individual student-athletes.

Group A and AA schools were the last to have their seasons align. Nansemond River and Lakeland were in Group AA until the mid-90s. With some schools playing during a coach’s normal recruiting season, and some not, Richey said, it likely hurt girls who could’ve had collegiate careers and scholarships.

“There probably were a lot of athletes in A and AA who never got looked at, because they weren’t playing in the same season,” Richey said.

Tara Worley has been coaching field hockey at Lakeland since 1998. Worley’s built a field-hockey powerhouse at a school that had no field hockey success before she got there.

This past fall, the Lady Cavaliers won the Southeastern District regular season for the 10th straight season, the SED Tournament for the ninth straight year and reached the VHSL Group AAA State Tournament for the first time.

Lakeland’s had field hockey standouts go on to James Madison, Old Dominion, Virginia Commonwealth, Radford and a number of Division II and III schools in recent years.

Of her players who graduated in 2001 or earlier and who went on to play collegiately, none played in AAU, Junior Olympic, select teams, or basically played field hockey year-around.

It’s probably some coincidence Worley can point to an exact dividing line, but from the class of ’02 to the present, every Lady Cavalier who’s gone on to play in college played field hockey year-round while in high school.

It’s a double-edged sword, Worley admits. Her competitive side wants her players to eat, sleep and play as much field hockey as possible. She also sees the cons though.

“It’s directly related to our success,” said Worley, “and someone can definitely say, ‘Look who’s saying it.’”

More and more though, athletes, male or female, are being pushed toward becoming one-sport athletes at a young age.

Worley played softball, field hockey for a season, and was a cheerleader at Nansemond River. She continued with softball at Christopher Newport. Worley coached softball, as well, for her first few years at Lakeland.

How she’s coached her teams, with the intensity Worley shows and with the effort and dedication she demands from her players, has been controversial at times. It’s a hurdle that — while maybe not directly about gender — is an issue in part because she’s coaching girls.

With victories and numerous players earning scholarships, complaints have become more rare as her time at Lakeland’s gone on.

“I’ve had coaches, of all sports, ask me, ‘how do you get your players to do what they do for you?’ and I really don’t have an answer for that. I have high expectations and I don’t lower them for anyone,” Worley said.

During her first year at Lakeland, while coaching the JV field hockey team, Worley remembers being told, “the kids here are different and the parents are different. You’re not going to be able to do but so much.”

“I was very confused by that statement,” said Worley. “I only do it the way I know how. You only know what you know.”

Worley says she came into a very good situation at Lakeland, and that probably saved her from what some coaches dealt with.

“For one, we had Mr. (Edward) Smither, and he just took care of people,” said Worley.

Worley, Smither and recently-retired athletic director Ron Robertson worked to build and maintain a first-class field hockey field for the Lady Cavaliers, something that still is far from the case at some schools around the region.

About schools with sub-par field hockey fields, Worley doesn’t necessarily think it’s about gender inequality as it is the thought that, “it’s just field hockey.”

“I think some of it is the coaches. A lot of times you are your only advocate. The schools only have a limited amount of money and resources to work with. We work really hard to raise money and get what we get,” Worley said.

A similar story is true with Nansemond River’s baseball field, which is one of the best playing surfaces in a region with many great baseball facilities. Because the baseball field was top-quality, for a long time the school heard complaints about why the softball field didn’t have the same turf, lighting and extras said Richey.

The difference was Nansemond River’s first baseball coach, Phil Braswell, who personally worked — as Richey puts it, “24 hours a day, 12 months a year, and without pay” — on the field. Braswell worked tirelessly both manually caring for the field and raising donations for amenities such as lights and a large scoreboard.

“An outsider might say, ‘Nansemond River, they put all their money into baseball and didn’t do anything for softball; or Suffolk Public Schools, they like Nansemond River and not any other school,’ but it really wasn’t that, it was just one energetic individual, and no one was going to say, ‘no, we don’t want you to do it,’” Richey said.

Another area where female teams lag behind male teams, Worley said, is in the attention given to successful teams.

“A female team in any sport — maybe except basketball — that is successful doesn’t get the same recognition, exposure and media coverage of boys’ teams, especially basketball, football or baseball teams with success,” Worley said.

“I’ve been in the system forever and seen a lot of changes, and a lot of positive changes,” Richey said. “Are they equal now? It’s better than it’s ever been. Is it perfect? No.

“We should never be satisfied. There are always ways to get better, but seeing it from where I started, with girls’ sports in Suffolk’s schools, I don’t see any disparity.”