A man with a plan excels on the Old Dominion field hockey team
NORFOLK, Va. -- Over skinny hotdogs, crinkle-cut fries and soupy mashed potatoes, Christian DeAngelis and teammates Mia Fucci and Anouck Vandersteen dig in to lunch at the Broderick Dining Commons after a two-hour field hockey practice at Old Dominion.
Passing topics include an upcoming American Writers test, a class DeAngelis and Vandersteen share, and Fucci's awkward style of shooting a penalty stroke. The freshman approaches it sideways instead of straight on; her lack of a poker face gives her away.
"That's how I did it in high school," she says.
"Are you in high school?" DeAngelis asks, snagging a fry from her plate.
"You're going to insult me and steal my biggest fry?" Fucci protests with a giggle.
The conversation moves on to talk of a recruit visiting for the weekend. "We're gonna take her shopping!" Fucci says.
DeAngelis shrugs. "I'll be done, and they'll be in the first store."
It's one of the few ways that DeAngelis, a 5-foot-11 freshman forward/midfielder, is struggling to fit in with his Monarchs teammates. DeAngelis is the only male on Old Dominion's field hockey roster -- or, for that matter, on any Division I field hockey roster in the country.
Field hockey isn't an NCAA sport for men, but coach Andrew Griffiths assures, "He's one of us."
DeAngelis is a practice player, which in itself isn't unusual. Coaches of women's teams often rely on male practice players, particularly in basketball, to simulate opponents' schemes.
Almost always, Division I practice players are high school standouts accomplished enough to play at the Division II or III levels.
DeAngelis is an elite talent, a member of the U.S. U-20 men's national field hockey team. His aspiration to earn a spot on the senior national team left him searching for options that would offer expert coaching, a strength-and-conditioning regimen and daily exposure to the sport he fell in love with at age 13.
That he wanted a college degree, too, led him to Old Dominion. DeAngelis made a verbal commitment to Griffiths in April.
"Coming here to work with a team like this, to work with them on every drill, that's gold," says the 18-year-old, whose deep voice resonates with his Philadelphia accent.
He isn't on scholarship, and he neither plays nor travels with the Monarchs, but DeAngelis is a member of the team in every other way, Griffiths says. His paperwork has gone through the NCAA clearinghouse. He participates at every practice and follows a weight-room regimen. He's on the sideline for home games, he's part of the huddle during timeouts, and he has his own locker. One caveat: It's in the visiting team's locker room, with a spray bottle of Axe Apollo alongside some sweaty gym shorts.
Group chat? Check.
"He's one of my best friends on the team. It's really nice having him," Fucci says. "He's here to challenge us, and it's nice having him as a friend. Field hockey is such a girl thing. It's nice to have a boy's perspective on the game."
Although going to a college that offers high-caliber field hockey at the club level was an alternative, DeAngelis craved the structure a Division I program would provide. Besides, this isn't the first time he has been on a hockey team surrounded by women.
He played alongside his sister Brianna when he was a freshman and she was a junior at Central Bucks High School West. He would have continued, but the state high school association passed a rule preventing teams with male players from participating in postseason play.
"I used to warm up against him in goal," says Brianna, now a sophomore goalie at Lock Haven, "which was awesome."
Growing up, when Christian wasn't playing soccer, he was likely spending time at one of Brianna's field hockey tournaments.
"Back then, I didn't have a cell phone, so to keep myself and my younger sister occupied, we'd see if there were extra sticks in Brianna's field hockey bag," he says.
A Thanksgiving trip in 2012 to a tournament in West Palm Beach, Florida, presented an opportunity for Christian to play in a scrimmage. During a segment called "Grow the Game," boys were encouraged to pick up a stick and try it out.
He was hooked. He talked to one of Brianna's club coaches about joining that team. He went from an entry-level U14 girls' indoor team to a more competitive one. That's when U.S. national team coach Rutger Wiese spied him for the first time.
"You're really good," Wiese told DeAngelis. "Have you ever thought of playing with guys?"
DeAngelis had not, but soon enough, he joined a regional high performance center where he evolved from a boy playing field hockey to a field hockey player. He was good enough to be selected to the California Cup, the pathway to the junior national team. He has since played in five Cal Cups in addition to the Junior Men's Pan American Championship.
Dave DeAngelis explored the idea of his son becoming a practice player in college, the best pathway, he thought, among limited options to accelerate Christian's development.
While men's field hockey is wildly popular in some parts of Europe and South America, it remains a niche in the United States. Players DeAngelis' age often choose to hone their skills overseas or on the West Coast, home to a number of competitive club programs.
"Christian's an East Coast guy," his father says. "Then there was the matter of him getting an education."
ODU met all the criteria. Griffiths coached at Lafayette College in eastern Pennsylvania for six years and knew the family. Christian actually played in a coed tournament against Old Dominion during a previous summer and enjoyed the urban campus that is a half-hour from the oceanfront.
Still, he arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, as a reticent freshman unsure of how he was going to fit in at a program with nine national titles and 31 NCAA tournament appearances, second only to North Carolina.
"I was really quiet at first, and then a couple of practices in, a few of the girls came up to me and started a conversation," he says. "Once I started getting friendly with some of them, it was pretty easy to be friendly with the whole team."
When he isn't at practice or in class or "eating six plates of food at the dining hall," Fucci teases, the sports management major regularly chills with his teammates, watching their Netflix preferences, usually Disney movies or "Gossip Girl."
"He's into our shows," Fucci says.
He gets to train every day with good coaches. He has access to the weight room. He has a routine. He's working toward a degree. I only see benefits.U.S. national team coach Rutger Wiese
DeAngelis good-naturedly counters with, "There's a difference between watching and being in the room. As they're watching their shows, I'm often doing something else."
Even so, "He got us into 'Arrow,'" Fucci says, referring to the adventure series based on DC Comics' Green Arrow.
Practice, though, is serious for everyone. DeAngelis has one motor. So do the rest of the Monarchs.
"With him going his hardest, it brings a different aggression to our game," Fucci says. "He's made us go after the ball harder."
"When we work on offensive corners, he's on defense," midfielder Carrie Sensenig says. "Once you know you can get a shot off with Christian playing against you, you know you can get it off if anyone else is playing you."
His overhead lobs travel twice as far as those of his teammates, but mainly his speed, along with his bright orange shoes, sets him apart.
"Three of his steps are like one of mine," senior midfielder Danielle Grega says.
DeAngelis is modest about his contributions. "I'm trying to make them better, and they're trying to make me better," he says.
His reverse stick shot now goes where he wants it to, thanks to a tutorial from teammates.
"I never knew how to hit a reverse on the ground before," he says. "It would be up in the air or down low."
Wiese embraces the concept of more males following DeAngelis' lead. Right now, DeAngelis is the lone practice player listed among the 78 schools that play Division I field hockey.
"This is the first time I've ever heard of anybody being rostered," Wiese says. "I hope we see more of it. He gets to train every day with good coaches. He has access to the weight room. He has a routine. He's working toward a degree. I only see benefits."
DeAngelis' long-range goal is to be on the roster of the senior national team. "If I keep up with training and grow as the years come, I feel it's obtainable," he says. "But it's only if I want to push myself to get better."
He's hopeful more guys will discover, as he did, just how much fun field hockey is.
"Not many guys even know about it," he says. "It'd be great to get some guys to pick up sticks and try it out for themselves."