Nate O’Lari loves to play field hockey.
Well, enough that when he was in seventh grade, he went to a preseason jamboree at Mahar Regional School and was intrigued; enough that he has dealt with at least one opposing varsity team refusing to play the Senators because he was on the team; and enough that he has endured ridicule from opposing players for being a boy playing a girls’ game.
But that’s nothing. Now he loves it enough to forego his final two years of high school eligibility for a shot to make the U.S. Men’s National team.
You have probably heard about O’Lari. He has been in goal for the Mahar field hockey team the past four years, beginning his seventh-grade season when he split time in net before serving as the team’s three-year starter. This season he is only in his junior year of high school, but you won’t find him in the Mahar net.
The reason for his absence was not intended upon first attending a clinic in Watertown last October that was attended by U.S. Men’s National Team coach Chris Clements. O’Lari didn’t work with Clements that day but got a surprise visit from the coach at the end of the session.
“He said that he wanted to get me out to California to play in a clinic,” O’Lari said. “Needless to say, I hadn’t worked with him all day, so I was a little surprised.”
With that, O’Lari was off to the West Coast, where he played in a three-game set with the U.S. Men’s National Under-17 team against Team Canada. O’Lari was impressive enough there to be sent to train with the East Coast High Performance Under-20 Team this past May in Boston. That led O’Lari back to California, where he played with East Coast in a three-team tournament along with Northern California and Southern California. Although his team finished third, O’Lari said the opportunity was great for him on a personal level.
“It was a big step for me,” he began. “I feel like going out there I grew a lot as a person. It was a total culture shock. It was the first time I had been outside my New England bubble. I didn’t think it was going to lead anywhere but it did.”
That may be an understatement. Less than a month later, O’Lari was informed that he had made the U.S. Men’s Under-20 National Team. That sent O’Lari to Thula Vista, Calif., in June, and there he took part in training camp. The Under-20 team is the feeder program for the Men’s National Team that competes in the Olympics, so he now sits just a step or two away.
But O’Lari just turned 16 and still has plenty of time until that happens. He will continue to train with the East Coast High Performance Team every weekend beginning in December and carrying through until summer. He will also attend any camps or tournaments with the Under-20 National Team, likely to take place next summer.
But none of those teams have anything to do with why he is playing. At least not directly. O’Lari is unable to play high school field hockey because of a sponsorship he received while at the National Team Under-20 training camp. While he was there, he was handed a stick, worth about $300. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the person who gave him the stick was a representative from East Coast Voodoo, a field hockey company.
“The person said, ‘Here’s your stick,’ and the next thing I know I’m looking at Facebook and I see a congratulations from Voodoo about their new sponsorship with Nate O’Lari,” he said. “I said, ‘There goes any chance of playing high school field hockey.’”
While O’Lari said he was unaware of the ramifications for taking the stick, he’s not upset that it happened. He’s honored that a company would want to sponsor him, and had he been perfectly clear at the time as to what would happen, he would have still accepted the stick. But it also meant that he had to give his teammates some bad news.
“They were bummed,” O’Lari said. “At first, they told me to try to keep it a secret. But I didn’t want to hurt them. If somebody found out, then we would have to forfeit every game.”
O’Lari was also upset at the thought of his high school career being over.
“It was a dream of mine to go out on Senior Night and play in my final game next year,” he said. “I think it’s every high school player’s dream to play on their senior night. And it’s every high school player’s dream to win WMass or win States. It’s kind of disappointing.”
But it’s also every high school player’s dream to play at a higher level, and O’Lari is there.
Talking to O’Lari also provided me with the opportunity to speak with him about boys playing field hockey.
O’Lari fell in love with the sport. He began playing in seventh grade, having formerly been a baseball player.
“It was during a middle school scrimmage at the Mahar Jamboree,” he said. “I wanted to know more about field hockey. I asked one of the girls, ‘Do boys play?’ They said, ‘Sure.’ They mentioned another team that had boys.”
O’Lari showed up for practice and it only took him a day to realize that if he were going to play in the field, he was going to have to wear a skirt. That’s not easy for a seventh-grader.
“I was in seventh grade, and you know when you are that age you have an image to uphold,” he said. “You don’t want to be (picked on) for wearing a skirt.”
So on the second day, O’Lari moved to goalie, where you can wear pants and pads. He immediately felt comfortable.
“I don’t know why but I absolutely loved it,” he said. “People may say, ‘How could you love such a thing, it’s a girls’ sport?’ I don’t know. Maybe it’s the team chemistry, maybe it’s the action, maybe it’s the finesse. It’s the whole game. I can’t explain why.”
It’s a sticky situation, boys playing on a girls’ team. As I’ve said in the past, I understand the girls’ side of things, as far as not wanting to have to compete against boys, who are usually stronger and faster, but after talking to O’Lari, I also see it from his angle. O’Lari came across as a very polite, nice young man. He is not on the field to beat a bunch of girls. He’s there to play a game he truly enjoys.
“There’s going to be controversy,” he began, “but there’s no other outlet. I’m not out there thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to go trash a bunch of other girls, and dominate.’”
As to how he was received by his team and others, O’Lari said that his female teammates would refer to him as their brother, and no one ever said they were upset that he was on the team, even if it meant the Senators had to move up to Division I in the postseason.
“The girls always embraced me,” he said. “It was always a supportive process.”
He admitted that tournament season could be tough, because he knew he was the reason the team had to move up a division.
“Every year I thought, ‘Maybe I’m holding these girls back,’” he explained. “I look at last year and we really had a chance to compete at the Division II level. If I stepped off the field, maybe they would have won Division II. But you’re asking me to give something up that I loved. And I don’t know how much of a difference I made. If I was that great caliber, then Longmeadow wouldn’t have scored five goals in the semifinals.”
But just because his team was supportive, doesn’t mean that everyone was. O’Lari brought up the Murdock High School team that refused to play Mahar again after playing one fall when there were multiple boys on the team. And he knows there is plenty of grumbling about boys playing by girls on other teams. But he doesn’t care. He loves the game.
“Why not fight for something you love?” he asked. “If you don’t fight for it, then there is no point in loving it.”
Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.