California Elementary School Youth Field Hockey League Thriving

EL RIO, Calif. – More than 240 kids in the Rio School District in El Rio, Calif. are currently participating in an exciting youth field hockey program conceived by outgoing individuals in Sonya Lopez Mercado, Ed.D, Director of Extended Learning Programs, and Marc Bakerman, USA Field Hockey’s National Boy’s Development and Los Angeles Manager. Dr. Mercado and Bakerman devised a sustainable “Club” system with six elementary schools in the Rio School District, which are now practicing and competing three to four days per week after school with coaches and parent volunteers.

Bakerman and Mike Whitehead, both USA Field Hockey and California Interscholastic Federation certified coaches, are providing structure and ongoing support through umpiring and training coaches to make this all possible for twenty total teams. Over half of the 240 athletes are boys, with the make up being 10 all-boys and 10 all-girls teams.

Dr. Mercado, a pioneer of after-school extended learning programs for many years now, has worked with the local Field Hockey Federation out of Moorpark, Calif. for more than five years, initially starting with a couple of schools and now expanding to six elementary and two middle schools in the district. Dr. Mercado’s enthusiasm and love for youth sports has been key in guiding her “kiddos” (as she lovingly refers to them) to learn and play field hockey.

“Our Rio families and I deeply appreciate our partnership and our participation in the Cal Cup tournament,” commented Dr. Mercado. “Field hockey has become the flagship sport in our after-school program.  A parent commented, ‘Practice, games, and transportation provided by RSD during after school hours is AMAZING!’. Students have gained interest in and knowledge of field hockey, and field hockey has also been a gateway to other sports for some of the Rio children who participate.”

The Rio after-school field hockey league consists of several schools – Rio Real, Rio del Sol, Rio Plaza, Rio Rosales and Rio del Mar. All games are played on the artificial turf fields at East Village Park. Thirteen game days are scheduled for the after-school league, with athletes traveling to and from the fields on school buses. League play will conclude on May 16, 2024, where the winning teams in the all-boys and all-girls divisions will receive medals.

Each school has provided players with uniforms, shinguards and mouthguards, while the equipment consisting of sticks, balls, cones, and goals were supplied by the local Field Hockey Federation and the U.S. Men’s Field Hockey Foundation. All hands are on deck when it comes to coaching and umpiring, as Dave Jackson, Ricardo Mora, Zachary Bakerman, Jaxon Bakerman, and others make the trek to El Rio three to four days per week to lend their years of field hockey expertise.

Field hockey is a fun sport, a college sport, an Olympic sport – and one that can open the doors of opportunities for these young student-athletes. Ventura County has a rich male field hockey tradition led by selfless volunteers like Janice Mohr, the late Coralie van Marken, Ricardo Mora, and others who have tirelessly dedicated their time to growing the game over many generations. Many U.S. Men’s National Team athletes, some of them Olympians like Ben Maruquin, Larry Amar, Brian Spencer, Mike Newton, Gary Newton, and Hall of Fame honoree Patrick Cota, have come from these types of school-based programs.

These student-athletes will have the special opportunity to compete in the world renowned 52nd annual Cal Cup International Field Hockey Tournament held at Moorpark College from May 25 to 27, 2024. Each of the six Rio Schools will compete in the U-10 Co-Ed division. This will be the third year that Rio students have had the chance to play at Cal Cup.

“Having the good fortune to meet and work with Sonya Mercado of Rio School District over the years has been a dream come true,” said Bakerman. “Sonya took a chance introducing field hockey and has truly been a pioneer and visionary creating these current after school programs for her students.”

“This program will serve as the benchmark and the template for other school districts who are interested in bringing sustainable “club like” field hockey programming and leagues to their communities, without the needed the expertise to do so.”

Are you interested in replicating this elementary school league in your community? Do you have a similar field hockey success story you’d like to share? Reach out to sportdevelopment@usafieldhockey for support to help grow the game!

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