JOHNSTOWN - The Johnstown girls field hockey program's motto is "One Team. One Family. One Mission."
This season, that family will include a male for the first time in junior Cody Cooper.
Cooper, whose goal was always to just be a member of the team, will finally get his chance when the Lady Bills take to the field for their season opener on Sept. 9 when Johnstown hosts Scotia-Glenville at Knox Field.
The Leader-Herald/Derek Dunning
Cody Cooper, right, defends against Kambry Shea, left, during a 1-on-1 drill at the Johnstown field hockey team's practice on Monday at Knox Field in Johnstown.
"I've wanted to play since I was in seventh grade, but my parents said I couldn't do it," he said.
In order to play, Cooper had to first transfer from Fonda-Fultonville where he attended his first two years of high school.
Then, he had to undergo a series of physical fitness tests monitored by school officials to make sure he wouldn't have an unfair physical advantage.
"Finally, this year my parents said I could come and play," Cooper said. "I went through a process of tests and being approved by the school and the Section which took almost all summer."
New York State allows boys to compete in girls sports as long as there is no other comparable sport offered at the school and as long as they pass the fitness test with the rest of the section approving it.
In essence it's a case of reverse Title IX, the landmark precedent that mandated girls have equal opportunities in education and over time, has impacted girls sports programs.
Cody follows in the footsteps of his sisters, Kayla May and Kendra Cooper who both played field hockey at Johnstown.
May holds school records for career goals with 68 and the single-season record with 38. She went on to play at Division I Louisville and scored 21 goals during her four-year career before graduating this past spring.
"I first got into hockey with my sisters playing," Cody said. "I started coming to summer leagues when I was younger and kept coming each year after."
Johnstown coach Quinn Swartwout said she remembered seeing Cody at the summer leagues every year.
"He had been coming to summer leagues since I started coaching," Swartwout said. "He would always hang around and then play when we needed someone."
After Monday's practice, Swartwout handed out team uniforms. With the No. 26 on his shoulders, Cody's dream finally came full circle.
"I feel relieved because it has been hard for me to get the point across that I just want to play," he said. "It's my dream and everyone just kept saying no, no, no. I'm just happy that the team has accepted me I can be a part of a program that's been really successful."
"We wanted to give him the opportunity to play," Swartwout said. "He's one of the team and there is no difference. He works hard, has a good attitude and we're glad to have him."
While men's field hockey is virtually non-existent in the United States, it's quite prevalent in Europe and Australia and is even an Olympic sport in the summer Games.
"It's not as popular here in the United States, but there are a few places to play," he said.
Cooper traveled to as far as Philadelphia just to try and play.
"I went to Philadelphia to try out for a team, but that is as close as it really comes," he said. "No boys around here really play it, but I'm hoping that some younger people might want to once they see that I'm playing."
Cooper said he hopes to move on to the next level and play collegiately overseas and maybe even one day play for the national team.
"I give him a lot of credit," Swartwout said. "As a junior in high school, it's not an easy thing for a guy to do. I think it takes a lot of courage for him to put what he wants ahead of what he could get made fun of for."
There are precedents for boys playing on girls' high school sports teams.
In 2007, Kyle Ray played for the Horseheads (Section IV, Southern Tier region) girls' volleyball team and at times was met with harsh resistance, including a team protesting a state playoff game before it was ever even played.
Even locally, Gloversville had a boy on its girls' field hockey team a few years back.
According to an article in the Times-Herald Record on Nov. 7, 2007 by Keith Goldberg, there was a widely publicized case in Massachusetts in which a boy, Nate Coolidge, admitted to going out for field hockey "as a joke." By 2001 though, according to a New York Times article, as many as 20 boys a year were playing on girls' field hockey teams in Massachusetts.
The rest of the players on the Johnstown team have accepted Cooper and now, two weeks into practice, he's just another member of the team.
"Cody is an inspiration and he always pushes his hardest and pushes the team as well," senior Kate Bant said. "It's not really any different having a boy on the team with us and he is a great member to have on the Johnstown Lady Bills."
One Team, One Family, indeed.