MANHEIM, Pa. — Michelle Vittese was not thinking about college scholarships when she was introduced to field hockey at age 10.

As a fifth grader at Haddonfield Friends School, she didn't contemplate how excelling at the sport would eventually land her a scholarship to the University of Virginia and avoid the crushing financial debt that saddles most college graduates.

Vittese was just a kid from Cherry Hill who fell in love with a sport.

"Honestly, someone just gave me a stick in a P.E. class," said Vittese, who played at Camden Catholic High School. "I was quick and kind of feisty. I had played roller hockey on skates with boys, so I picked it up pretty easy. [Field hockey] chose me, really."

Monday, Vittese was among five members of the national field hockey team who helped conduct a skills camp for more than 100 players in grades 1-12 at Spooky Nook Sports, the home training center for USA Field Hockey.

Michelle Vittese (left), shown here as a high school player at Camden Catholic, helped direct a recent skills camp for more than 100 young players.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Inquirer Staff
Michelle Vittese (left), shown here as a high school player at Camden Catholic, helped direct a recent skills camp for more than 100 young players.

Except for some of the older players, most of the participants were just thinking about improving their game and not potential educational opportunities down the road.

"I'm sure that their parents are [thinking about scholarships], but the kids are just here because they love the game," said Vittese, 28, who represented the United States at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. "I can't tell you that each one of them is worried about college down the road. I hope they eventually do [have the opportunity]. The possibilities for college scholarships are there, but you have to also take care of the academic side."

Vittese is fortunate because USA Field Hockey pays national-team members enough of a stipend to live in Lancaster and train full-time.

"The cost of living for us isn't very high, but they make [the compensation] reasonable so that we can train full time," she said. "Women's sports are hard. There are opportunities, but it's usually not very lucrative."

Jacklyn Briggs teaches youngsters during the field hockey camp.
Kalim A. Bhatti/For the Inquirer
Jacklyn Briggs teaches youngsters during the field hockey camp.

In most professional sports, females still make pennies on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.

For the first time since 2010, the Forbes Top 100 Highest Paid Athletes list had no female athletes – primarily because tennis star Serena Williams is on maternity leave.

Among professional baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, soccer and even cricket, thousands of male athletes have career earnings that should secure their families financially for generations. Only a few handfuls of women athletes can say the same.

Because of Title IX, however, the number of college scholarships for women is on par with those for men.

Across the divisions of the NCAA, NAIA and NJCAA, there are thousands of sports scholarships offered from the hundreds of institutions of higher learning that have athletic teams. A scholarship might not lead to a career as a pro athlete, but a free or reduced-cost college education could lead to better job opportunities for women.

An article in Money magazine in February said women with an associate degree earn an average salary of $43,000. The last census in 2008 had the average per capita income at $26,984.

People involved in sports for girls are taking notice of things like that.

In 2016, Major League Baseball entered in a joint venture with USA Baseball to create the Breakthrough Series. The program focuses on developing young players on and off the field through seminars, mentorships, games, scout evaluations and high-level instruction.

The program specifically states a goal is "to promote softball as a viable collegiate option for youth from underrepresented and underserved communities."

In May, four players from the area – Abigail Bernal (Pennsbury High School), Natasha Torres (Central), and Kamila Ayala-Lopez and Selena Saldivar (both from Reading) – were part of a group of 60 players selected from across the United States who participated in the 2018 Series at the MLB Youth Academy in Compton, Calif.

Torres, a catcher and first baseman who is a rising junior, has already thought about softball as a means to go to college and set her on the way to a career in pediatric medicine.

"I am determined to play college softball," Torres said. "When I first started, it was just for fun, but the more I got into competitive softball, I knew I wanted to work hard and earn scholarship money for school.

"Softball is something that I love to do, and getting scholarship money from it would be a big boost in taking me to where I would like to go in life."