Dina Hannigan is the pied piper of Needham Youth Field Hockey. If she blows her whistle, they will come: hundreds of girls who enthusiastically come to DeFazio Park each week to learn field hockey fundamentals and have fun.
Coach Hannigan, a former player herself, started this program out of sheer love for the game and to create an atmosphere where girls from first through eighth grade feel they belong. “I wanted to make sure I created a league that was noncompetitive, inclusive, gets sticks in the girls’ hands and allows them to learn in a chill environment,” Hannigan said. She added that there’s no pressure to join travel or club teams.
On practice nights, streams of girls, some carrying field hockey sticks bigger than they are, arrive for practice. They happily charge to their assigned groups coached by high school players who get community service credit hours for helping out. It’s a win-win for the younger kids, who look up to the older girls, and for the teens who learn patience and leadership skills. Samantha Murray, 17, a varsity defender, coaches the sixth graders. “I love to see them grow socially and in the sport that I love,” Murray said.
Hannigan started the program in 2020 after wondering why the sports-loving town of Needham didn’t have a youth field hockey program. Soccer and lacrosse had always dominated the scene. “I’m just going to do it,” she decided. Now she and assistant director Tessa Taylor are seeing girls from that inaugural season make the high school varsity team. It’s a farm program that just continues to grow. Hannigan said what started with 81 girls that first fall grew to 170 in one season. Now close to 300 participate.
Carrie Benet said her second grade daughter Samantha was used to going to all her older brother’s sports, but joining this program empowered her. “This is something we can come to, cheer her on and root for HER!” said Benet.
Hannigan, who has worked with teens and preteens most of her professional life, said the pandemic caused a lot of anxiety and mental health issues in this age group. “We’ve just come through three years of survival. The girls can come here and feel comfortable, happy, and return to normalcy. For me, it’s about the whole experience.”
Hannigan, winner of the 2022 USA Field Hockey Humanitarian Award, said she’s already getting requests to start elite travel teams for each grade, but she’s not interested. She feels there’s plenty of time for these kids to be competitive. “I want this to be a super fun place to be, and while you’re here, learn some field hockey,” she said.
Fall practices end next week, but the program resumes in the spring.