Six years ago, former U.S. men's national field hockey player Paul Lewis took the reins of a startup program at Palmer Ridge.
The culture of field hockey in Colorado took him by surprise.
"Things were pretty scarce when I first started," said Lewis, set to start his fifth varsity season on the sideline at Palmer Ridge, now a perennial contender for the state championship. "It needed some help. I got a lot of help from the field hockey family, and I know it's catching on in this area now."
The prep field hockey season starts Aug. 31 at two Pikes Peak region schools on opposite sides of the city. Their recent histories are just as opposite.
While Palmer Ridge enjoyed its finest hour last season, despite suffering a heartbreaking loss to Colorado Academy in a sudden-death shootout, Cheyenne Mountain struggled to a 2-10-3 season under first-year coach Paula Rizzi.
Lewis has reaped the rewards of introducing the sport to younger girls. Besides encouraging six local elementary schools to allow field hockey in their physical education classes and after-school programs, Lewis oversees a youth program that gives players experience long before they reach high school.
It's probably no coincidence that the Bears have reached double digits in victories in three of their four seasons of varsity play.
That's what Rizzi would like to see at Cheyenne Mountain. And she believes that, with the revival of a middle school program, the needle is pointed in the right direction.
"We're building a program again, and Paul and I are on the same page," said Rizzi who, like Lewis, hails from California, a field hockey hotbed. "We have the same goals, to have field hockey grow in Colorado Springs."
Now, the victories aren't only on the field. Several of Palmer Ridge's top players have been courted by elite colleges and universities. Just this past spring, Bears standout midfielder Casey Deeds accepted a scholarship to Stanford.
"I've always wanted to inspire field hockey players to do good things," Lewis said. "Coaching is my calling, and it's neat to see them be successful."
Even as a coaching counterpart, Lewis has joined forces with Rizzi to a certain extent in a supportive role. The results have been astounding. At the recently held Rocky Mountain State Games, Cheyenne Mountain's entry took third place after not having won a game previously.
"They have a taste of winning, and they like it," Rizzi said. "It's not a popular sport here, but I'm seeing it grow at Cheyenne Mountain. The culture is changing. The girls are excited for practice and now really like the game. They're telling their friends. It's a nice turnaround to have the support of people like Paul. We both want to grow the game here and have fun."
Coach: Paula Rizzi
Key players: None.
Outlook: In her first season on her second coaching tour at Cheyenne Mountain, Rizzi's team gradually improved and finished 2-10-3 after going winless in 2011. She expects the progress to continue this season with a young team that continues to build toward the future.
Coach: Paul Lewis
Key players: Daelynn DeMello, sr.; Jessica Berg, sr.; Edie Statham, so.; Cherydan Pettit, jr.; Courtney Child, jr.; Ashley Walker, jr.
Outlook: The Bears have plenty of pieces in place to make another run at the state title. They'll have to replace Casey Deeds at midfield and most of their defense but return plenty of firepower on offense with DeMello and Berg.
Kevin Carmody, The Gazette