As often discussed here in the VCReporter, when it comes to sports, Ventura County plays the suburban, younger brother to the many franchises in Los Angeles. It’s nearly impossible for any market in the country, with perhaps the exception of New York or Chicago, to measure up against LA’s famed teams like the Lakers, Dodgers and Kings, who are among the most recognizable and richest in all of sports.
In recent years, however, instead of trying to compete with LA, Ventura County has paved a different path to the national and international sports map. While Los Angeles County may have the major American sports covered, like professional baseball, basketball, hockey and soon football, Ventura County has gone outside the box to become home to a series of smaller, and often overlooked, sports.
From Ventura BMX, whose track is now a yearly stop on the National BMX tour, to the many boxing gyms in Oxnard and Ventura that are home to world champions and famous trainers, to Fusion, Ventura’s semipro soccer ambassadors to the world, the county has become a hot bed for several different, but all under-appreciated, sports.
Long before any of the aforementioned and slightly offbeat sports became synonymous with Ventura County, there was one that paved the way: field hockey.
For over 40 years now, the 805 has been home to one of the most popular field hockey events in the United States, the California Cup International Field Hockey Tournament, which takes place every Memorial Day Weekend in the unlikely city of Moorpark.
Just a week away from the 44th edition of the tournament, we take a closer look at all things field hockey, including the legendary local who helped popularize the sport in Ventura County and the Cal Cup, a tournament with an unbelievable and inspiring history.
A MISUNDERSTOOD SPORT
Field hockey’s origin can be traced to the Middle Ages where a stick-based game can be found in the histories of Scotland, England and the Netherlands. A few centuries later, the sport is now played around the globe, but its popularity varies from time zone to time zone with India, Pakistan, Australia, as well as many countries in Western Europe currently being its biggest proponents.
The majority of the world refers to it as just hockey but here in North America, where ice hockey is more popular, it’s better known as field hockey.
The game itself is essentially a cross between soccer and ice hockey. (It’s important to note that field hockey enthusiasts are quick to point out that their sport came long before ice hockey.) It has many of the same rules and features as soccer, like penalty cards and a massive amount of running around a field, but traits like using a stick while attempting to score on a heavily protected goalie are clearly more aligned with ice hockey.
In short, it’s a fast and fun sport that requires a lot more cardio than one would imagine, not to mention an almost chess-playerlike ability to see moves and plays, often before they happen.
In the United States, field hockey is most popular in southern states like Alabama and Florida, and while there is no professional league, the USA does have one national team each for women and men and they naturally attempt to qualify for the Olympics each year, usually with little success.
The men’s team has only qualified for the Olympics six times, and at least two of those were due to the fact that the USA was the host country. It has only won one medal, a bronze, back in 1932. As for the women’s team, that’s another story. Women’s field hockey was only introduced as an Olympic sport in 1980 but the USA team has already accomplished the same as the men’s squad, scoring one bronze medal. That success is a testament to the sport’s popularity and association with women in America.
Though field hockey dates back to Great Britain in the late 1400s, but gained momentum in the late 1800s, women’s field hockey began popping up around high schools and colleges in the 20th century in the U.S. for an interesting reason. With a disproportionate amount of boys to girls being able to attend college on athletic scholarships, many schools began offering more women’s sports including field hockey to help level the playing field, no pun intended.
It worked in a big way and women’s field hockey has flourished in this country, but it also created an almost ironic scenario. While women’s sports are almost always unfairly forced to play second fiddle to their male counterparts in virtually all aspects, field hockey, at least in America, is one of the rare exceptions. It’s hard to believe but the NCAA does not have a men’s field hockey division yet it has a thriving women’s division.
That means, if a young man who becomes interested in the sport in the United States, there’s a good chance he can’t play it at high school although his female classmate may be headed to an Ivy League school on a full scholarship for playing the same sport. The only hope of playing is to join a club team in the area, but field hockey clubs for men can be far and few between depending on where one lives.
As for attention, with field hockey being such an overlooked sport, there is no stumbling upon a match on ESPN or seeing the sport’s stars on the cover of Sports Illustrated or on a Wheaties box. Most men who play it in the United States almost have to be introduced to it directly by a family member who has played the game and can teach the basics.
As for the one and only Tom Harris, the man who helped popularize the sport in Ventura County, and for close to 50 years has overseen the international tournament he helped create, how he discovered field hockey might be an exception. It’s a mix of plain old dumb luck mixed with a healthy dose of fate.
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE FIELD HOCKEY KING
Like all good inspirational stories, it starts with an insult. Well, sort of. While watching the 1968 Olympics on television, a friend of Harris’ saw a blurb about America’s inability to play field hockey. With national pride on the line, the man figured, how hard could it be? He contacted Harris and some other friends and they all headed to Buena High School in Ventura one afternoon to give it a go. Though they had little knowledge of how the game was played, they had a good time nonetheless and the seed was planted.
Harris, at the time in his early 30s and a drafting instructor at Moorpark College, was more partial to softball but he was bit hard by the field hockey bug, and enjoyed the fact that the men were, at least on a local level, pioneers for the sport.
Harris, whose background in engineering and education, two professions that call for extreme organizing skills, began to structure things and start an actual club. He also moved operations to his place of employment, Moorpark College, where, long before soccer was popular, the field hockey players would have the school’s fields all to themselves.
Then random chance struck again in 1972 when the club found out that a team from Kiel, Germany, was coming to the East Coast.
They reached out to the team and invited them to come to Moorpark for a “tournament.” When they accepted, Harris and company, with no experience whatsoever in hosting such an event, had their hands more than full.
Keep in mind that this was long before the Internet so communication for the event was done through letters and phone calls. They even added two teams they had befriended in Canada as well as two local teams, and just like that, an international tournament, in the heart of Moorpark, was born.
The inaugural Cal Cup was a grassroots operation to the core, with visiting teams staying at the local players’ houses and the after-party taking place at the not-so-glamorous Electrical Workers Union Building in Ventura.
Despite all that, it was a massive success in the eyes of the visiting teams, and a good time was had by all.
“For the first Cal Cup, we were just out to have a good time,” remembers Harris. “We had no idea of what would happen the next year, let alone 44 years later. At the time I just wanted to organize things a little better. Where it is now is beyond my wildest dreams.”
It was eventually decided by all that it wasn’t going to be a one-time event. The sport needed to be developed in the area and having a tournament was the way to do it.
THE CUP OVERFLOWETH
All that was over 40 years ago. Since those early and experimental years, The Cal Cup, now known officially as the California Cup International Field Hockey Tournament, has grown into something no one could have foreseen.
It is now, quite simply, one of the most important field hockey tournaments in the United States. The Cal Cup now has an 11-member board of directors and roughly 40 volunteers that help run the event during the weekend. From one venue with one field and six teams participating over two days in 1972 to four venues with 16 fields and over 150 teams participating over four days, the event’s growth has been mind boggling.
Over the years, teams, players and umpires have come from over 20 different countries as far away as Spain, India, Australia and Germany to Moorpark to participate in the Cup. What makes it so popular among field hockey players the world over is the fact that the event encompasses all levels of the sport for men and women. With divisions for players under 10 years old to over 50 years old, The Cal Cup is almost like a massive family get-together for supporters of the sport. Even Harris, now 79 years, still competes in the Cup, perhaps proving that field hockey is the real fountain of youth.
The Cup has also been the catalyst for the county to become a breeding ground for the sport beyond the tournament. With multiple field hockey clubs throughout the area, like, the Cougars in Camarillo, the Bulldogs in Thousand Oaks, the Roadrunners in Ventura and the Coyotes in Moorpark, the county’s talent pool has seen multiple players from this area who played at Cal Cup go on to the USA National Team and even play in the 1984 and 2006 Olympic Games.
Harris’ legacy doesn’t just stop with the Cal Cup and the inspiration of multiple clubs in the area. He also designed and built a “wet field” at Moorpark College in 1994. The water-based artificial turf field is the same kind that is used at the highest levels of the sport. While most field hockey teams are forced to play on soccer fields and baseball outfields, Moorpark College boasts a state-of-the-art designated field hockey field. California’s drought is affecting the use of the field, but it will be used for the tournament.
This year’s Cal Cup is set to have 150 teams from around the world with over 2,000 players, which translates to big business for West County restaurants and hotels. Star players from the USA, Canada, Australia, Mexico and Argentina national teams are scheduled to appear, with many using the Cup as an opportunity to get ready for the Pan Am Games in Toronto this summer. The $7,500 that goes to winners in the men’s and women’s Super Division also helps with the international draw.
With all that said, and it is fair to say that no other sport in the county has produced, percentagewise, the level of talent that field hockey has, Harris, who has been inducted into the United States Field Hockey Hall of Fame, openly admits that games at the Cup are still primarily attended by the participating teams, and the sport has had its growing pains.
“Field hockey could be much better in its organization and promotion,” Harris said. “It is frustrating when we see the development of other sports like soccer and lacrosse that began development about the same time. We are awaiting a wise and focused person who can do the same thing with our sport regarding the promotion of hockey. We need to give the public an accurate idea of the sport. It’s safe as soccer and can be played by 5-year-olds, not to mention it’s an Olympic sport for men and women.”
Harris’ devotion and passion toward a sport he accidentally stumbled upon remains just as inspiring as he nears his 80th birthday and, despite field hockey’s issues, he’s confident the Cal Cup will continue to grow.
“With the group of dedicated volunteers we have, who put in many hours and have the expertise and experience, the California Cup should continue to develop,” says Harris. “It should continue to bring in many teams from outside this area to help us grow in the sport and our outlook of the international scene. Field hockey is a great game that gives the opportunity to use every part of the body and mind in a challenging situation. Field hockey has allowed me to be able to travel and make friends around the world. It’s been an amazing experience.”
The 44th Annual California Cup International Field Hockey Tournament takes places May 22-25 at Moorpark College, Arroyo Vista Park in Moorpark, Moorpark High School and Westlake High School. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.calcup.com or email