As a freshman on the Yorktown field hockey team, Emily Stafford barely went to practice. A natural athlete who played various sports growing up, Stafford kept busy that fall with lacrosse and flag football.
“I slowly started playing more and more field hockey, and I kept on seeing my skill level improve,” Stafford said. “I really just started liking it, and so I just kept sticking with it.”
Jump ahead to 2021, and it’s easy to see why she stuck with it. As a junior last year, Stafford netted the lone goal in the Class 6 state championship game — the Arlington school’s first field hockey title — and was The Post’s All-Met Player of the Year.
“I always joke with my teammates about this — I was never at practice,” Stafford said. “But when I came back, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve spent all this time training; I want to see where I’m at with everyone else.’ I was excited to be back; I really liked it and just kept going to practices.”
It’s now the sport in which she’ll be competing at the next level. Stafford is committed to playing field hockey at the University of Pennsylvania, where she’ll study at its Wharton School of Business.
The middle child in an athletic family, Stafford and her two sisters always played different sports growing up. This allowed each of them to find a favorite of their own.
For her older sister, Katelyn, that sport became track and field, though she also played field hockey, including two seasons with Emily at Yorktown and now on the club team at Virginia Tech. Emily’s younger sister, Olivia, plays alongside her now and was an occasional practice partner during those days in Delaware. But Olivia has become a competitive soccer player — even competing with youth national teams.
“We had so much energy and we were all very competitive, so they threw us into every sport possible,” said Emily, who still plays on Yorktown’s lacrosse team, which won a state championship in the spring.
Another type of sisterhood has also had an impact on Stafford.
Yorktown field hockey has a tradition of “stick sisters,” where every newcomer is paired with a returning player. When Stafford was the lone freshman on varsity in 2019, senior captain Chloe Westhoff mentored her throughout the season, and the two are still close. It helped Stafford realize how much she loved the program’s culture.
Entering her senior year, Stafford knew she wanted to pay it forward to an aspiring star. So she took under her wing the only freshman, Maddie Nimerala. Continuing the tradition, Stafford gets Nimerala gifts before big games and gives her words of encouragement on the pitch.
“Yorktown field hockey has definitely made me fall in love with the sport 10 times more because of the girls on the team,” Stafford said.
Yorktown Coach Olivia Shipley has known her captain since she was in eighth grade. While Shipley has always been impressed by Stafford’s talent — Stafford has seven goals and 10 assists this year — she marvels even more at her humility.
“In any game, you know you’re one of the best players on the field, there’s probably a ton of pressure on you,” Shipley said. “And yet, you’re still executing with grace. Never having an attitude, throwing equipment — she’s never been disrespectful to me or any of the coaches. Someone at that level, it’s very easy to get caught up in what you’re doing or talk down to your teammates who aren’t at the same level. But she’s never frustrated with anyone.”
Not even when Yorktown looks like it’s on its way to a loss, or when someone whiffs a shot. Throughout a game, Stafford is cheering on her teammates and pushing them to keep going.
“She makes us look better on the field,” said Alexis Williams, who plays alongside Stafford in the midfield and is especially impressed by the strength of Stafford’s passes. “It’s definitely something really special.”
Yorktown is 9-3 this season, and to Stafford one of those victories might have been a bit sweeter than the rest. Her cousin, Ashley Kennedy, is a captain for rival Washington-Liberty, and Stafford’s Patriots got the better of Kennedy’s Generals during a 1-0 win Sept. 16.
Kennedy was there during those formative six months in Dewey Beach when Stafford developed a newfound love the sport. Though Stafford looks back with nostalgia now, those days were marked by uncertainty. Her lacrosse season had been canceled and her classes would be conducted online. So the family headed to Dewey three months earlier than it would have.
That spring, a bona fide field hockey player was born.