No matter what the history books say, Pioneer field hockey coach Jane Nixon lives – and coaches – in the moment. “It’s this year that counts,” she said during this past season’s playoff run where Pioneer eventually lost to Dexter in a semifinal game.
“We always just want to play our best and do our best in the next game and not talk about what we’ve done in the past,” she said.
But that’s exactly what we are going to do here because when it comes to field hockey in Ann Arbor, the past is pretty impressive.
Let’s flip the pages back for a moment and take a look at this area’s dominance over the years in high school field hockey.
Huron won the Division 1 state title this past season with a win over Dexter in the state finals. Pioneer had won three straight championships in D-1 before the River Rats raised the trophy in November.
In 2013, Huron won the D-1 title while Skyline won the D-2 title.
Pioneer returned to the top of the mountain when they won the 2012 state championship, ending Huron’s two-year state title run (2010-11). The Pioneers also were state champions from 2005 to 2009 and won three straight starting in 2000 after winning every state title in the 1990s except for 1996.
It doesn’t get much more dominating than that.
Nixon has been the co-head coach or head coach of the Pioneer program since 1990 and has racked up a record unparalleled in the sport of field hockey or any other sport for that matter. She has over a 90-percent winning average. In 2006, she had more collegiate athletes playing in the NCAA Tournament than any other coach in the country and was named National Coach of the Year by the National Field Hockey Association in 2010.
Nixon, a special education teacher at Pioneer, played high school field hockey at AA Greenhills before playing her college hockey at the University of Michigan.
She could play it and she could teach it. So what’s it like playing for Jane Nixon?
“She is unlike any coach you will ever have,” said Sophie Schoeni, a standout senior on this past year’s team. “You can tell that her whole life is totally dedicated to the team during the three or four months of the season. She comes to practice with these pieces of paper with all her thoughts on them and passes them out and talks to us for about 20 minutes before practice. She gets all emotional and excited and tells us how much she loves us and loves the sport and how excited she is to practice today. Every day she is so incredibly happy to be there and be with us.”
The team just feeds off that energy. They practice with great intensity and purpose preparing for the next challenge ahead. And one certainly can’t argue with the results.
Lauren Hall, in just her second year at Huron, guided the River Rats to a state title this past season. Hall was an assistant with Nixon at Pioneer so she is well versed in not only the sport of field hockey but how and why Ann Arbor has been so dominant over the past 20 years.
“Both of my kids played at Pioneer and I helped coach at Pioneer before moving over here (Huron),” she said. “For many years Pioneer and Huron were always among the top two or three programs. When Skyline opened, Huron fell off a little bit when the pool of athletes started getting disbursed from one school to another. Huron’s numbers fell off a little bit when that happened.”
The numbers are back up and so is their return to the upper echelon of the sport where the River Rats now sit all alone at the top.
While Hall admits Pioneer is the benchmark in field hockey, Huron, she says, has been right there for a long time with their city rival when it comes to dominating the sport.
“For many years it was very often a Pioneer vs. Huron final,” she said.
Success in field hockey begins at a young age. Unlike some schools, most players wearing Ann Arbor jerseys at the high school level have years of experience which gives them a big advantage over many of their opponents.
“The Ann Arbor school’s rec. and ed. program begins teaching field hockey in about third grade,” Hall said. “We have the advantage of having players exposed to the game long before they get to high school. There also are teams at the middle schools, some more successful than others. In the last couple of years there have been some club teams pop up which allows players to play outside of the high school season.”
There are a number of club teams now throughout the state including in East Grand Rapids, Novi, Farmington and Downriver. These new club teams should help improve the level of play and also make for a more competitive high school season.
In Hall’s first year at Huron last season, the River Rats had a sophomore heavy team that reached the state semifinals before falling in overtime. So she knew she had a strong lineup returning for this past season which ended with a state title.
And many of those players will be back. Huron only graduates two seniors from its title team. So the Ann Arbor dynasty appears to be in good hands.