In observance of Women’s History Month, The Michigan Daily’s sports section is launching its fourth annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports writers on staff. Sports writer and sports audience engagement assistant editor Aria Gerson continues the series with this story.
Nancy Cox pounded on the door of the Pioneer High School football building. Inside, football players were showering. No one answered the door, so Cox took matters into her own hands.
She yelled: “Boys, put your towels on because I’m coming through!”
Cox bolted through the shower area until she found her real target: the coaches’ office, with its leather couches and big screens.
It was the early 1990s and Cox was the field hockey coach at Pioneer. The Ann Arbor high school was progressive for its time when it came to women’s equality in sports, but the new football coach — Cox refused to name him — was an outsider, one who didn’t share the same commitment to women’s sports. That day, she’d found a lock on the building that served as the storage area her team shared with freshman football.
“Who put that lock on the field hockey-slash-football storage area?” Cox asked the waiting coaches.
The assistants were silent. Finally, the head coach spoke up. He had locked the building.
“Who gave you permission to do that?” Cox asked.
“No one, we’re football,” the coach said.
It was a pervasive attitude at the time. But it wasn’t one that would fly at Pioneer.
“You’re part of a much bigger vision in Southeastern Michigan, and the vision is that men’s and women’s sports at this respective school are equal,” Cox said. “And you need to send one of your assistants to take those locks off of that building.”
Cox’s tirade restored her access to the building, but it was a symbol of so much more. Today, Washtenaw County is flooded with quality field hockey programs. Marcia Pankratz’s Wolverines are consistently one of the best teams in the Big Ten. They have a national title —the first won in a Michigan women’s team sport —and four total Final Four appearances. They have 10 Big Ten regular-season titles and six tournament titles.
From 2015-19, five different Washtenaw County schools won state championships in field hockey. Seven of the 28 players on the Wolverines’ 2021 roster are from Washtenaw County, including representatives from Pioneer, Dexter, Skyline and Saline. Two Ann Arbor-based club teams have helped raise the recruiting profile of prospects from the area. Though the sport is not widely played in other parts of the state, field hockey in Ann Arbor is undeniably thriving.
“The game has grown significantly in the state of Michigan,” Cox said. “There have been significant initiatives among many adults … who have taken a vested interest in promoting the growth of the game throughout the state.”
Field hockey is somewhat of a niche sport, one many people have never heard of until they attend a game or pick up a stick for the first time. Because of that, the sport has developed a tight-knit community. Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz detailed how one umpire, Pat Hayes, whom she has known for 50 years, is still working high school games even at age 79. That’s just the way the community is.
Above all, those who played field hockey at the highest level are dedicated to giving back to their sport. Cox is a perfect example: She not only stood up for her sport but also brought new people into the community that would later work just as hard to take the sport’s presence to the next level. That growth has only generated more growth.
Under Cox’s tutelage, Pioneer became almost unbeatable and began to gain more respect as other coaches took notice of what she was doing. As the head coach at Pioneer from 1981-1997, Cox won 11 state titles and had three undefeated seasons.
Today, Pioneer isn’t as dominant as it once was — but that’s largely due to the emergence of other programs in the area. A Washtenaw County high school has won a field hockey state title every year since 2004.
Around the same time Cox began growing Pioneer into a dominant power, another pivotal development happened: Three women —Roxy Block, Leslie Fry and Elise Garrett —established the Ann Arbor rec-and-ed field hockey program, a recreational program for students in the third through eighth grades.
“I would attribute a lot of the success (in Ann Arbor) to the development of that program because you don’t see a lot of similar programs across the state,” Keely Tamer, head field hockey coach at Dexter said. “And that’s an initiative just being undertaken is to try to grow rec-and-ed around the state just to create more opportunities to play the sport.”
The establishment of rec-and-ed came at a transformative moment for the sport. Originally one of the only sports offered for women, field hockey was widely played throughout the state in the 1970s. But two factors helped hasten its decline: First, the passage of Title IX in 1972 required schools to provide more opportunities to female athletes, providing field hockey with more competition. Second, boys’ basketball coaches became unwilling to share their facilities with girls’ teams, prompting the state athletic association to move girls’ basketball to the fall. With basketball —one of the most popular sports for girls —in the fall, many field hockey teams lost large numbers of players. (In 2007, the state was forced to move girls’ basketball back to the winter after losing a class action lawsuit brought by a group of high school athletes in 1998.) Many districts that previously had field hockey programs, including Detroit Public Schools, dropped them for lack of athletes.
It was thanks to women like Cox, Block, Fry and Garrett that Ann Arbor field hockey kept gaining steam even as the sport declined elsewhere.
In 1996, the University hired Pankratz as its head field hockey coach. To many area field hockey coaches, that marked the moment when the Wolverines finally demonstrated a commitment to the sport, joining the Ann Arbor landscape in this respect.
Pankratz built Michigan into one of the top programs in the Big Ten, cementing its status with a national title victory in 2001. At her side was Cox, whom Pankratz hired as an assistant in 1999 on the strength of her work with Pioneer.
“I think coaching at any level is about teachers that have that ‘it’ factor,” Pankratz told The Daily. “You need to be a winner on any level. And when I got here, I had never met (Cox). But when I looked at her record, I’m like, ‘She had won umpteen championships in a row.’ … I’m like, ‘Boy, we need to get her on our staff.’ This is clearly a winner, she knows how to run a program, she knows how to build championships and winning field hockey players.”
By then, the number of programs in the state was rapidly expanding. In 2004, Block and Fry started the Washtenaw Whippets, a program for girls who did not have a field hockey team at their high school. According to the Whippets’ website, “the intent was always to eventually spin off high school teams to grow the sport in Michigan.” It worked. Saline and Dexter added programs in 2007 and 2009, respectively, and the Whippets dissolved into an official team at Chelsea High School in 2015. Meanwhile, Skyline High School opened in 2008 and won its first state title in 2013.
After retirement, Cox established Pinnacle, a local field hockey club, in 2009. The same year, Maren and Ryan Langford —the latter of whom is currently an assistant coach for the Wolverines —started another club, Fer De Lance. Unlike most other sports, people don’t have to have any kind of special certification to start a field hockey club. But with a wealth of former coaches in the area, both Pinnacle and Fer De Lance emphasize finding those who are qualified and have no problem doing so.
Many athletes play at Pinnacle or Fer De Lance with students from other high schools in the area, schools that become their biggest competition come high school season. That’s helped grow the community even more as athletes get to know each other as both competitors and friends —a dynamic that, unlike in other sports, is celebrated in field hockey. At the same time, every team knows that its biggest competition is never far. As Tamer tells her Dexter team, “The road will always lead through Ann Arbor if you want to win a state title.”
The increased prominence of Michigan’s program affords another opportunity to local students: Throughout the fall, they can see one of the top Division I field hockey programs in the country for free —and that’s not to mention the Wolverines’ opponents, who often end up near the top of the rankings themselves. Unlike athletes from the northern or western side of the state, Southeast Michigan athletes can see top competition in their own backyards and see for themselves what the game looks like played at the highest level.
“No doubt that the better level of high school hockey has helped us with our recruiting and helped us retain great local talent that helped us win championships,” Pankratz said. “ … And a lot of players that come out, whether they’re ball girls or they sit in the stands or they’re the daughter of a former player, they come and they see these amazing role models out in the field … and they want to be like them. And I think that’s an exciting thing to pay it forward to the new generation to inspire these young girls by being cool role models.”
Having Michigan in close proximity also helps recruiting. Women’s sports, especially non-revenue teams like field hockey, don’t have the same recruiting budget as sports like football and men’s basketball. Usually, this means players have to travel around the East Coast to be seen by coaches, a process that isn’t accessible to athletes who don’t have the means. But it’s easy for Pankratz to scout local games in a way it isn’t for coaches of other top programs like North Carolina, Maryland and UConn. The Wolverines’ roster is often built around some of the top players in the state in addition to those from field hockey strongholds like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania as well as international players.
“I think the benefit to (Pankratz) every now and then is she’ll grab a kid that’s just an incredible athlete that can play field hockey that may not have the resources to be on one of those travel teams that travel all over the East Coast in order to be seen by coaches,” Lauren Hall, the head field hockey coach at Huron High School, said.
According to Cox, the Midwest was still overlooked as a source of field hockey talent even 10 years ago. But that’s changing. When Cox talks to representatives from NCAA programs at all levels, she consistently sees coaches who recognize the wealth of talent in the area and are willing to take a longer look at athletes from Michigan to recruit. That’s reflected in Cox’s motto at Pinnacle: “’As the tide rises, all ships rise.” In essence, as more programs are added in the area and begin competing, other programs are forced to improve to catch up.
Within her team, Pankratz emphasizes giving back to the community that has given the program so much. The team runs clinics and a summer camp in the area, and Tamer remembers coaching with the rec-and-ed program during her days with the Wolverines. Now, it’s been long enough that the community has a second generation. Tamer’s daughters, Emma and Abby, both play for the Wolverines. Pankratz is starting to see children of her former players compete at the high-school level. It makes her smile —even though she feels a little old.
And with the community still growing and more and more people giving back to the sport they grew up playing, the future of field hockey in Ann Arbor looks strong.
So much of that goes back to the dynasty Cox originally engineered at Pioneer. In fighting for field hockey to have equal access and demanding respect for her team, Cox laid the groundwork for the sport to thrive at other high schools, at the University and beyond.
And it was her dedication to the sport and its community —along with others like Block, Garrett and Fry — that encouraged people, whether it be former Michigan players or those originally from the area, to get involved in coaching or organization and continue what has become a storied tradition.
“There are these pockets of adults who are genuinely vested in growing the game,” Cox said. “And now we’re seeing the athletes from the 80s and 90s return to their respective community … and these young people are giving back to the sport.”