Fight, Grit and Love: 100 years of field hockey at Sweet Briar

Posted on December 11, 2020 by Abby May

From back of photo: Photo taken by Peggy Jones, physical education department, 1950.
l-r: Mary “Tre” Lanman Brown ’50, Meredith Moore Lynn ’50, Marilyn “Grim” Fisher ’50, Louise Warfield Stump ’51, Patricia “Toddy” Barton. Constance Applebee, 2nd from left

Sweet Briar really should have been able to celebrate 100 years of competitive field hockey in 2019. Alas, the first game—scheduled to take place on Dec. 6, 1919, against Westhampton College (now the University of Richmond)—had to be cancelled due to what the Briar Patch called the “extreme perversity of the weather” at Sweet Briar. Nearly a year later, the field hockey team took the field against Lynchburg College on Nov. 20, 1920, and dominated, winning the game 10-0. Just a few days later on Nov. 22, Sweet Briar was finally able to play the long-delayed game against Westhampton College, winning a thrilling match 3-2. Sweet Briar was a leader even then; those two games were the first women’s field hockey intercollegiate games to ever be played south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Field hockey had truly taken the College by storm and has continued to be played every year since then.

Field hockey was likely introduced to Sweet Briar by Constance Applebee, an English player and coach who traveled to women’s colleges around the U.S. to introduce the sport and give lessons. It is possible, however, that the sport might have been played before her visit. We know from our archives that Sweet Briar had plans to bring field hockey to campus almost a full decade before the first intercollegiate game was played. In 1910, the Briar Patch noted: “At last, the long-looked-for hockey field is in view.” By the end of the 1912-1913 school year, the hockey field ground, given as a gift to the College, was ready for play.

In those early years, there was no intercollegiate competition at Sweet Briar, but there were a number of inter-class field hockey teams, including varsity, senior-sophomore, junior-freshman and more. The first intercollegiate games ever played by Sweet Briar—in field hockey and basketball—were scheduled in 1919. The students felt that a few competitions against outside colleges would be exciting and benefit the athletes, the sport and the College.

And that it has. In 1921, representatives from the Sweet Briar team traveled to Philadelphia to watch the all-English field hockey team play. Then, just a year later, the College sent some of its players there for a tournament. It was a noteworthy moment; the young Sweet Briar team was playing against experienced teams and well-respected schools like Harvard. That same year, a winter game between Sweet Briar and Bryn Mawr was likely the first contest between a northern and southern college.

Throughout the next decade, Sweet Briar played against teams including Hollins, William & Mary, Harrisonburg and Westhampton and the team and its players were beginning to be recognized for their excellence. In 1936, seven varsity players were invited to play for Virginia in the Southeast Tournament in Baltimore. Two of those players advanced from the Virginia team to the Southeast team.

In the 1940s, Constance again visited Sweet Briar. Her presence always brought a hardworking and committed attitude to the game and its athletes. Caroline Brandt ’49 played field hockey for Sweet Briar and experienced Constance Applebee first-hand. “Applebee scared me to death. I played at a camp up north in Maine and met her then, and when I went to Sweet Briar I thought I was going to get away from her,” says Caroline jokingly. She recalls one time when Constance saw a girl chewing gum on the field.

“She asked ‘What’s in your mouth?’ and the girl replied, ‘Chewing gum.’ Constance told the girl to take the gum out, put it on her stick and follow it down the field,” says Caroline. Although Constance may have been a tough coach, it’s leadership and strength like hers that set up the sport to achieve such success over a century of play at Sweet Briar.

Of course, the College had another important leader and field hockey coach: Jennifer Crispen, who began her Sweet Briar career in 1977 and coached field hockey until her passing in 2008. Indeed, Coach Crispen is one of the most well-known contributors to athletics in the College’s history. For Crispen—as almost everyone called her—field hockey was a true passion, but she also spent many years coaching lacrosse for the Vixens and you can’t talk to alumnae who played either sport (or any other!) without hearing about Crispen.

Coach Crispen congratulates Tracy Stuart ’93 after a last-minute score for a win.

Crispen knew well the importance of Sweet Briar’s history. Tracy Stuart ’93 spent her four years at Sweet Briar learning from the legendary coach and remembers Crispen showing her the 1919 team picture and reminding the team that they had a legacy to uphold. “It’s important to note that Sweet Briar College attracted not just academic students, but also female athletes,” Tracy says. “Field Hockey is a strong, athletic game—and it isn’t an easy game to master. 100 consecutive years of field hockey competition at the college is an important milestone. It represents 100 years of determined female athletes coming to Sweet Briar with a desire and heart to compete.”

For many, playing for Coach Crispen remains an important part of their Sweet Briar experience. Alice Dixon ’82 , also a four-year field hockey player for Crispen, remembers an especially difficult game against Old Dominion University in 1978. “It was, and still remains, the only time our schools competed against each other in hockey,” Alice says. “ODU was a formidable team, and I suspect that they agreed to play us only because they thought it would be an easy win. Well, Sweet Briar prevailed! The final score was 2-1 with goals by True Dow ’80 and Marian Galleher ’81. This was a huge upset; the biggest of my four years as a player. They were a national powerhouse hockey dynasty. I love to say that they never played us again because they were afraid they’d lose again!” In 1981, Crispen coached the team all the way to the American Intercollegiate Association for Women National Division III Field Hockey Championship. To get there, the team had to qualify through a tough regional tournament alongside 13 other teams. “I remember that while we lost our two games, we played very well and held our own against some very strong and talented teams,” Alice recalls.

The 1981 team at the American Intercollegiate Association for Women National Division III Field Hockey Championship

Field hockey is the only sport at Sweet Briar that has played continuously. “That says a lot about the program,” says Tracy. “Women wanted to play this sport during the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s, 1990s and on. It drew tough individuals to Sweet Briar to play this sport—individuals who weren’t scared of getting hit by a hard, plastic ball flying 75 miles an hour.”

The attempted closure in 2015 affected Sweet Briar athletics greatly, including field hockey. When classes started in the fall of that year, many athletes played multiple sports, personally recruiting friends and other athletes so that the College’s teams could continue to play.

The relentless fight of the field hockey players to continue their legacy speaks to the character of the Sweet Briar woman. “One hundred years is especially sweet,” says Alice. “Following the failed attempt to close the College, our number of students fell dramatically, but President Stone knew how important it was for the future of athletics to retain its NCAA and ODAC memberships. This meant that it was critical to field teams without any interruption.”

Current field hockey coach Hannah Lott knows how special those players are. “The players from 2015 to 2017—known for their drive to rebuild their sport—are a special kind,” she says. “They had the fight in their spirit, the grit in their gut and the love for their school that allowed them to sacrifice for Sweet Briar. These were the students who fought for their college, their classmates and their teams. Students from all teams tried new sports just to give their teammates the chance to play.”

Of course, this year’s team has been faced with a global pandemic, but they remain determined to succeed. In the spring, they did virtual workouts. These days, they’re training on campus, even if they don’t know what the future holds. “Right now we aren’t sure what game we are training for next,” says Coach Lott. “But we know we are training to leave our mark.”

Clearly, today’s field hockey players are no less committed than those of 100 years ago. “Being on the field hockey team means that I am the example that everyone on campus looks to,” says Rosemary Austin ’21. “It also means that we are a family, and just like a family, we don’t always get along. However, a family also has your back when it really matters and will teach you the skills that allow you to grow. They will hold you accountable, show concern when you’re troubled and give you support when you need it most. That’s why the field hockey team has been the backbone of Sweet Briar’s culture for a long time now and the example that everyone looks up to.”

Alexis “AJ” Jones ’21 moves down the field

Like her teammate, Alexis “AJ” Jones ’21 feels the importance of her team’s history at Sweet Briar. “Women worked hard to constantly keep this sport even when there were little or few players to keep the foundation alive,” she says. “I admire these women who came into the program open-minded and determined to keep this sport going for future generations to come.”

Coach Lott knows the determination of her players well. “When the game knocked them down, they taped themselves up and got back on the field,” she says. “With tape flying, sweat dripping, down numbers on the field and on the scoreboard, they said, ‘We are going to get back out there and play with all of our might! Because when I come back in 20 years, I want to see the field hockey team competing and competing with pride!’”

And just like Crispen did when she talked to Tracy Stuart about the College’s earliest players, Coach Lott also knows that her team stands on the shoulders of those who came before. “Since Crispen’s death, and again since 2015, we have been fighting tooth and nail to prove ourselves,” she says.

Each year, the team strives to improve their record and increase the talent pool of the roster. Coach Lott imagines a future where the College hosts preseason tournaments and is a space for youth and adult hockey leagues to play. “I imagine the future of hockey at Sweet Briar to be a vibrant one and that Sweet Briar becomes the hockey hub it once was. The growth of field hockey at Sweet Briar will mean the growth, sustainability and increased prestige of the college.”

Bring on the next century, Vixens. You’ve got this.

Be sure to check out the latest issue of the Alumnae Magazine for a few extra features on our field hockey program