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Fifteen years ago, a new high school field hockey team competed for the first time. Wearing cotton t-shirts screen printed with “Washtenaw Whippets,” a nod to the tenacious and fast canine, the team consisted of youth from Chelsea, Saline, Father Gabriel Richard and, a year later, Dexter. Based in Chelsea, the team unified communities that did not offer field hockey. The founding of the Whippets team by Roxy Block and Leslie Fry in 2004 continued their quest to grow the game of field hockey in Michigan, a mission ignited in the late 1970s.
Today, five school teams, including Chelsea, have their roots in the Whippets. With the mission to grow the game, the Whippets generated spin-off teams that included Saline, Dexter, Pinckney and, in more recent years, the reestablishment of a school team at Father Gabriel Richard.
Surprisingly, the sport of field hockey is thousands of years old. Archaeological discoveries across cultures have depicted images of the game, including sketches unearthed within a 4,000-year-old Egyptian tomb. In 1901, the game was first played on American soil, introduced by Englishwoman Constance Applebee who studied at Harvard. Her enthusiasm for the sport ignited the development of collegiate teams in the eastern United States.
Title IX was the impetus that launched the game westward. The 1972 civil rights legislation of Title IX outlawed sex discrimination in relation to all educational pursuits. Regarding sports, Title IX requires schools receiving federal aid to allow all sexes to compete equally in sports. Title IX spurred universities to establish more field hockey programs for female athletes, including at Michigan State University (1972) and the University of Michigan (1973).
As a young athlete, co-founder Roxy Block benefited from Title IX playing collegiate field hockey. After graduating from college, she was hired as coach of Greenhills’ middle school team in Ann Arbor. In 1980, she began assisting Varsity Coach Leslie Fry, another former collegiate player, who held the Greenhills’ high school position from 1979 to 1984.
In the 1980s, Block and Fry, along with Elise Garrett, established a recreational field hockey program in Ann Arbor for 3rd through 8th graders with the aid of a USA Field Hockey grant to purchase sticks and balls. The program still operates today with Chelsea youth participants who register via Chelsea’s Community Education for spring and fall recreation leagues.
A USA Field Hockey grant provided Block and Fry with financial support for sticks and balls to establish the first Washtenaw Whippets high school team for students from schools lacking field hockey programs. Head coach Don Hes played a key role before initiating a team in Saline. Eldest daughter Corey Block, who would later play for Michigan State University, entered Chelsea High School in 2004. Daughter Casey Fry, who later competed collegiately for Wittenberg University, joined the team as a sixth grader.
From the start, competition was tough. The Whippets competed against school districts that had been investing in field hockey programs for years, including Ann Arbor Greenhills, Huron and Pioneer, as well as Dearborn, East Grand Rapids, Detroit Country Day, Marian of Bloomfield Hills and University Liggett of Grosse Pointe Woods.
The team’s vibrant pink t-shirts, and eventually jerseys, differed from traditional school colors with the intent to stand out for its inclusiveness. As planned, in 2007, Saline established its own school sports team. Two years later, a Title IX violation prompted the Dexter School District to add field hockey as a high school sport. With each spin off, the Whippets rose to the challenge to regrow the number of athletes involved in its program.
The Whippets won its first division III championship in 2007. With the rise and fall of team numbers as schools established their own programs, it was another five years before a second division III championship was earned. After years of effort, in 2013, a new Beach Middle School team was established and, in 2015, the Whippets finally became a Chelsea High School Bulldogs athletics team sport. Wearing the blue-white-gold, the Bulldogs and its 10 seniors earned the Division 1 Championship, beating Pioneer for the first and only time in the regular season, and earning the State Championship Runner-Up trophy.
Although the pink has been retired, each fall, the athletes don the well-worn pink jerseys for their annual Play4TheCure game to raise funds for the National Foundation for Cancer Research. They play to honor Roxy, who passed away in December 2017, and other family members and friends who have been affected by cancer. This year’s October 10 Play4TheCure will be ablaze in vivid pink and all gate fees and money raised via an online campaign will benefit cancer research.
In its 15th year, Chelsea Field Hockey hosts the Michigan High School Field Hockey Association’s State Championship for Division I and Division II on October 26 at the CHS Stadium – an exciting first. With tenacity and doggedness – and hopefully a little serendipity, this year’s high school team hopes to battle it out for the Division II championship for the first time. It’s a great year to make history.