Fall sports begin this week at Staples High School. Confident seniors, anxious freshmen — and every athlete in between — will get ready for challenging, intense, fun, uncertain and (hopefully) winning seasons.
Zoe Simonte has played field hockey since elementary school. She’s been on Westport PAL and Staples teams. She loves the sport.
But this year, she won’t wear the Wrecker blue and white. A rising senior, she’s decided not to play.
Instead, she’ll teach field hockey to others. She’ll work with the PAL youth program — and with Hearts4Hockey, a program she started for teens and young adults with special needs and neurodevelopmental disabilities.
Last year, right before school started, Zoe was injured. Thirty stitches kept her off the field for much of the year. On the sidelines, helping others — and receiving encouragement in return from teammates and coaches — she realized something very important.
“I got more out of that than actually playing,” Zoe says. “I got into JV games at the end of the season, but it wasn’t the same.”
Around this time last year, Zoe had started what became Hearts4Hockey. Friends who had children with special needs encouraged her to help out on Friday nights, in a Stamford sports program.
There was no field hockey, so Zoe introduced it. Using soft sticks and hockey balls, she taught passing and shooting skills in an easy-going way. Games were always fun.
She adapted the program to each individual’s physical or cognitive and developmental challenges — while always emphasizing peer interaction.
There were sometimes 30 participants. Zoe got help from friends, relatives, players’ parents, and the sports facility’s owner. Even her dog got involved.
The program melded 2 of Zoe’s passions: movement, and helping others.
“My goal is to create an environment where each person feels empowered to try new things without fear of being judged,” she explains.
“That’s what Ian (Tapsall, the Staples head coach) and other coaches taught me. I want to share that, and help others feel they are enough as they are.”
As Zoe thought about how time-consuming club and Staples field hockey are (the Wreckers are a perennial state title contender, with all that involves), she realized that as much as she loves the sport, it was more for its connections to others than for actual competition.
As a freshman, she’d been welcomed and embraced by older players. She enjoyed good, personal relationships with Tapsall and others. Now, Zoe decided, she can give something back to younger people, and those with special needs.
Her parents, friends and coaches all supported her decision to not play this fall, and work instead with PAL and Hearts4Hockey.
At a time when many seniors are focused on the college admissions process — without having any clear idea what they want to study — Zoe says her decision has helped her gauge what she might ultimately pursue.
“My mom said, ‘You really are a people person!'” Zoe laughed. “I hope I can do something in the future with that.”