There are dynasties – and then there is Pioneer field hockey.
The Pioneers have been the measuring “stick” for the sport for decades and even though the sport has grown – and continues to grow – Pioneer High School (12-1-2 after knocking off top-ranked Dexter this week) is among the best teams in the state every year. And the road to a state title still very much travels through Pioneer High School.
They have been, more or less, “pioneers” of the sport in the state of Michigan.
Before Huron won the previous two state titles, Pioneer had won three straight. Pioneer won the 2012 state championship, ending Huron’s two-year state title run (2010-11) and were state champions from 2005 to 2009. They also won three straight starting in 2000 after winning every state title in the 1990s except for 1996.
Nixon has been the co-head coach or head coach of the Pioneer program since 1990 and has racked up a record unparalleled in the sport of field hockey or any other sport for that matter. She has over a 90-percent winning average. In 2006, she had more collegiate athletes playing in the NCAA Tournament than any other coach in the country and was named National Coach of the Year by the National Field Hockey Association in 2010.
Nixon, a special education teacher at Pioneer, played high school field hockey at AA Greenhills before playing her college hockey at the University of Michigan.
One of the reasons the Pioneers have been successful is they don’t tend to look back but spring forward. They focus on the present and the road ahead while using a proven blueprint to build success.
But on Friday, Oct. 4 the Pioneers took a step back to look back at their incredible past and celebrate the program’s amazing history. Players from every year and from all over the country returned to Pioneer to celebrate the program’s 40th anniversary. And every team from 1979 to today was represented.
It was a magical evening that included a 2-0 win over Forrest Hills Central, Senior Night and even a “very competitive” alumni game. It also was a very emotional evening for the coach who made this all happen.
“I think everyone cried,” said Nixon. “It was so great. We had close to 50 returning players come back and I think we had everyone from the 1979 team all the way through to last year. We had people come back from all over the country. It was so much fun.”
During the alumni game, the current team members were the coaches, referees and cheerleaders. And while all the stories were told and shared, there also was a game to be played and don’t think for one second that the competitiveness that this program creates in people goes away after they graduate.
“It was a great game that ended 3-2,” Nixon says, with a proud smile. “They were legit goals and both teams really wanted to win. It was just so much fun.”
It meant a lot to Nixon to have the family home.
“Yeah, it really was special,” she said. “The spirit around the love of the game and the love of teammates and the love for one another was amazing. And that’s really what it’s all about.”
Sofia Keen is one of many players who have graduated from Pioneer and gone on to play at the next level. She says she owes a lot to the Pioneer field hockey program and especially her “special” coach.
“I think what made us so successful was that everyone really bought in to everything that Jane said,” says Keen, now a standout defender at Indiana University. “We really loved each other and wanted to play and win for each other and the coaching staff and that allowed us to excel.”
Keen, who won three state titles at Pioneer including back-to-back to back from 2014 to 2016, says it all starts with the coaches.
“I think the program continues to succeed at such a high level because of the coaching,” she says. “When I was there Jane and April were a phenomenal team and really believed in us and pushed us to be our best, and I think the coaches continue to do that with all the athletes that come through the program.”
Keen had eight goals and three assists in her career, winning Defensive MVP her first two seasons and captaincy as a senior.
“I think the field hockey culture is a huge part of why it’s growing so much in the area right now,” she says. “There are some great people in the field hockey community, like Jane Nixon and Nancy Cox (Pinnacle Field Hockey) and many, many others that make both club and high school practices a great experience.”
Keen first started playing this great game in third grade.
“My mom, Claudia Keen, introduced me to the sport and coached my first team,” she said. “I fell in love with the sport and haven’t looked back since.”
Keen’s experience at Pioneer must have prepared her well for the college game. As a freshman in 2017, Keen started in 12 of 19 games for Indiana and played in all 19 games last year for the Hoosiers along the backline.
“Yeah, it really prepares you for the next level because the coaches really teach you what hard work means,” she says. “Those girls are at practice running and working hard every single day and that work ethic is a huge component to being successful at the next level.”
It’s also a huge component to being successful in life. Family has a way of doing that.