In the final game of Maya Pickens’ tenure on the Tuscarora High School varsity field hockey team, she scored her first career goal. In the grand scheme of things, the goal was completely meaningless as the Titans went on to lose 3-1 to top-seeded Westminster, effectively ending their season.
But it did beg the question: why is it, that a player who scored just once in four years has coaches from around the county pointing to her as one of the top players and her coach, Julie Lunn, gushing?
“It was so much fun to watch her play this year,” Lunn said. “Other teams would be advancing down the field and I would say ‘We’re good, Maya’s there.”
Pickens crosses midfield a few times a game, which often belittles her role as one of Tuscarora’s most essential players. Much of the glory often falls on the shoulders of those busy doing what she is busy stopping — scoring.
“I enjoy being the silent player,” Pickens said. “I like playing ‘D,’ it works for me.”
Her style is atypical to that of a classic defensive player just as her on-field attitude is. She doesn’t press the attacker but waits, baiting the ball-carrier to make a move. And when they do, it’s not likely to work in their favor.
“I don’t really see myself as different, but I don’t like to play the ball,” she said. “I wait for it to see the best times to play the ball.”
That wasn’t always her strategy. It wasn’t until sometime during her sophomore season, nearly five years into her playing career, that Pickens realized being the aggressor might not be the best way to thwart an attack.
“She just goes down the field and watches the player come,” Lunn said. “And she comes out with the ball.”
Despite playing the rather thankless position of defense, there’s just one way that Pickens plays field hockey: with a smile.
“When I had the ball on my stick I would just laugh,” she said. “Because I was just so happy. I was so happy to be playing.”
Pickens has known plenty of field hockey players who loved the game just as she does but got burnt out by the year-round demands of fall ball, indoor, spring season and then summer tournaments.
“They’ll see it as a chore and not a pleasure,” she said. “But I never stopped loving it.”
It’s that unbridled joy with which she plays that has been the driving force for Pickens to reach the level she has. She’ll say it over and over again how downright happy she is when she’s helping out her team, and that’s an attitude not reserved just for the field hockey pitch.
Pickens is a National Honor Student at Tuscarora where she regularly goes well beyond her required 12 hours of community service. She has been volunteering at her church since she was seven, signing — yes, signing, not a typo — songs to the congregation and participating in the dance ministry.
“I love playing hockey,” she said. “But I love that feeling when you help people out. My parents always say ‘You never know when you might need help.’ So I help people out as much as I can.”
Her goalie, Bethany Mangold, might be her biggest beneficiary to date. Pickens has been instrumental in keeping the heat off Tuscarora keepers for the past four years and that may be because Lunn usually opts not to use Pickens as a shadow on any of the county’s top scorers such as Meg Stuart or Lindsay Lawrence. It would be a tremendous waste of talent to siphon her off on just one player.
“Granted, Maya being in the center of the field she’s going to naturally grab onto players like Lindsay and Meg,” Lunn said. And Pickens, as always, loves the challenge of stopping the best the county has to offer, especially when that challenge comes against Middletown.
“We all play together in the winter so it’s kind of cool because we’re friends,” she said. “But we’re still going at it.”
Just one time did Pickens show any signs of frustration when it came to discussing field hockey, and that was when Tuscarora’s 5-8-1 record came up in conversation.
“We had a lot of close games and a lot of chances that we just didn’t score,” she said defiantly. “Our record didn’t really reflect how good we were.”
And then Pickens was back to her normal, happy, laughing self. Just as she had done on the field for the past four years, she played defense for her teammates. And, just as she is on the field, she’s glad to do it.