Now a senior on the Granville High School field hockey team, Emily Contini remembers a time no so long ago when the sport's clothing was the biggest attraction for her.

Now a senior on the Granville High School field hockey team, Emily Contini remembers a time no so long ago when the sport's clothing was the biggest attraction for her.

"I started playing as a freshman. I thought the uniforms were cute," she said last Wednesday during a practice on the front lawn at Bryn Du Mansion, where the Blue Aces also play their home games.

Make no mistake about it, though, this sport isn't for the faint of heart. As is the case in most other contact sports, field hockey players proudly wear their welts and bruises as badges of honor, too.

"We go home bruised and bleeding," Contini said.

"I'd say it's tougher than most sports," senior Mary-Claire Rocha said. "We're always kidding the boys that if they played field hockey they'd be wearing all kinds of pads."

Aside from shin guards, however, the only other protective gear worn in field hockey are mouthpieces. Broken fingers are common injuries. Players relentlessly are subjected to being whacked on the legs by wooden sticks or struck by the hard plastic balls, which are slightly larger than the rubber ones used in lacrosse.

"I'm not sure (how fast the ball comes off a stick). That's a good question," senior Julia Brenner said. "But I've heard of a test the (Ohio State) men's lacrosse team did and it was like 100 mph. Ours isn't like that, but it's still plenty fast."

Such risks aside, Licking County's only field hockey program is growing by leaps and bounds. Now in its fifth year overall and second with varsity status, 57 students are playing at the high school on three teams, including two junior varsities. There are nearly three dozen more playing at the middle-school level. The program had only 20 players in its first sason in 2004.

"I'm amazed at the numbers, honestly," said first-year coach Lindsay Harrison, a former assistant with the Marshall University women's basketball team and a certified speed and agility trainer.

Structure, support and organization also have helped the program maintain its development. Rocha's mother, Chrissy, is president of the field hockey club and Contini's mother, Teresa, serves as treasurer. An entirely new coaching staff also includes j.v. coach Alyssa Lynch, a Granville graduate and former basketball and soccer standout, and volunteer coaches Tara Parsley and Sue Borchers, who is the school's new girls basketball coach.

Parsley, who is the sister-in-law of former Olympic skeleton medalist and Granville native Lee Ann Parsley, is the field hockey team's resident expert having earned All-American honors three times playing at Denison University, where she later worked as an assistant coach. None of the other coaches played the sport competitively.

"You don't necessarily need a specific talent to play. If you don't have speed you might have good stickwork, for example," Parsley said. "Our players come in all shapes and sizes, and there's a wide variety of athletic skills. It's our job to figure out where to best use those skills."

She said soccer is the sport most like field hockey. There are 11 players on the field at a time, including a goalkeeper who is allowed additional padding, and the positioning of players and the strategy involved are similar. A player with possession of the ball cannot turn her back on a defender, and any shots or passes above the knee result in a penalty on the offensive team. There are corner plays as in soccer, and games are two 30-minute halves.

Granville'sj.v. blue opened 3-1 and the j.v. white opened2-3. The varsity was 0-3-1 entering last Thursday's home game against Lancaster, with as many as 12 more remaining in the Central Ohio Field Hockey League boasting powers such as Columbus Academy, Watterson and Thomas Worthington, the defending state champion.

The Blue Aces tied Hartley 1-all on Sept. 4 as Brenner scored off an assist from junior Chloe Betts and junior goalkeeper Lindsey Levino made four saves. They outshot the Hawks 18-5.

"We play a lot of our games in the back. We use both a stopper and a sweeper (among four primary defenders in a triangle formation), too," Lynch said of the team's emphasis on defense. "If we were a more offensive team we'd probably play four girls up front (instead of three along with three midfielders)."

Also like soccer, fitness is a focus. On some days the Blue Aces might condition for nearly half of a 90-minute practice.

"Oh, this is their favorite part right here," Lynch said, laughing, when the players lined up to run sprints last Wednesday. "Our first week of practice was all conditioning. We never put a stick in their hands."

Brenner is the team's most skilled player, the coaches said. She also plays in a futures league based in Dublin along with two other teammates. They include Natalie Jardell, the only freshman on varsity.

Brenner plays stopper, one of the most difficult positions. She lived in Kentucky before moving to Granville and began playing the sport in middle school there, also taking an interest in gymnastics and horseback riding before field hockey became her obsession.

"It was different," Brenner said. "I bought a stick and went to a practice. I just loved it right from the start."

Rocha, who played soccer growing up in the state ofDelaware and also field hockey there as a seventh-grader, is a center-midfielder. She moved here as an eighth-grader but Granville didn't yet have a middle-school field hockey program so she began playing again as a freshman. She swam for Granville as a sophomore and continues to run track and field. Her advice for anyone interested in trying the sport: "Just do it. It's easy to pick up on."

Contini, who tried soccer and even baseball when she was young, is a right-back on the defense. Dance was one of her first loves, but field hockey eventually became a better fit for her competitive nature.

"But I knew after I got my first injury this was going to be a lot tougher," she said.

"It really grows on you," said Brenner, whose team plays 5 p.m. Monday as host to Bexley. "It's not like basketball or volleyball, where being tall really helps. Anybody can play field hockey, and with the right coaching and some hard work and desire, just about anybody can be good at it."