Kelsey Fithen started out trying her dad’s sports, but when it came time to make a choice, her mom’s game took over.
Fithen is the leading scorer for the Hopewell Valley Central High field hockey team this year with 13 goals and five assists through the Bulldogs 7-9 start. The junior’s total is one more than she amassed over her first two seasons, when she scored six goals each year.
“My freshman and sophomore years, I was really nervous,” she said. “Being an underclassmen I try to respect the older players and the coaches. This year I thought it would be a good goal to at least break my record. I was like ‘I can’t keep getting six every time, so I’ll break it this year.’ After I broke it, my parents said, ‘You know what would be cool, if you doubled it.’’’
Ah yes, the parents.
Keith Fithen has been a Mercer County coaching staple since the early 1980s. He is the former Lawrence High softball coach, and the former and present LHS boys’ soccer coach. When Kelsey was in first grade she tried swimming, dance, gymnastics and soccer, but none of them struck her fancy.
“My dad did want me to try his sports, but I just didn’t really enjoy soccer much,” she said. “You just see all the swarm of little kids go for that one soccer ball.”
Fithen moved on to swimming and softball, playing in the Hamilton Girls Softball Association where both her parents coached. She did not like the individual aspect of swimming but was a good softball hitter. By that time, she was beginning to notice mom’s sport.
Kim Fithen was the head field hockey coach at Hightstown for 10 years and at Bordentown for two seasons.
“I would always join her in her team building sessions, like when they went tubing down the Delaware,” Kelsey said. “When I actually saw them play I was like ‘Whoa, this is really cool.’ When I went to their practices, I was really interested and I just picked up a stick and my mom helped me out.”
The Fithens lived in Burlington Township at the time, and the township asked Kim to start a 3rd/5th-grade recreation field hockey program. Knowing Fithen was interested, she jumped at the chance and started it during the fall of her daughter’s third-grade year.
“She was doing fall ball for softball and then she started field hockey,” Kim said. “She kind of looked at us, and she’s like ‘Softball is boring now.’ So that kind of killed that.”
It was pure field hockey from that point, and Keith embraced it as much as his daughter did.
“As a parent, I could never be disappointed,” he said. “We tried to show her everything and see what worked. She just didn’t feel comfortable in soccer or softball and I can’t fault that. We wanted her to be happy in what she wanted to do, and it turned out it’s field hockey.”
After a couple years of Kim developing the program for Burlington, the kids started clicking and the light clicked for Kelsey, he said.
During the first year of Kim’s new program, they were playing full field 7-v-7 with just eight players on the team. If Fithen learned anything, it was endurance.
“They were tired little pups when they got off the field,” Kim said.
Fithen rapidly built the program, and many of the players from those early years are now starring for the successful Burlington Township High school program, just as Kelsey is excelling for the Bulldogs.
When the Fithens moved to Pennington four years ago, the league had expanded to K-8 and had over 85 players. The experience was invaluable for Kelsey, who did not have field hockey offered at her St. Gregory the Great Academy in Hamilton.
‘Now, she’s kind of leading by example and taking those opportunities when they’re there.’
In sixth grade, she joined the Princeton Field Hockey Club and is currently on the U-19 team, playing with several members of the U.S. National Team. Fiten was on the defensive line for Princeton, and when she arrived at Hopewell she was moved up to forward.
“I enjoyed it,” she said. “Defense, you don’t really get as much action as you hope for in front of the cage. And you’re never really scoring any goals. It was relaxing as a defender, but then I was like, ‘Hey, I could actually go somewhere as a forward.’”
Kim is not surprised at her daughter’s goal-scoring explosion this year. For one thing, she knew she had the talent to score from the time she started playing.
“It’s easy to transfer the hand-eye coordination, which helps in hitting a softball, to that hitting mentality in field hockey,” Kim said. “She was always strong hitting in softball and when she made the transition into field hockey she was always a very strong hitter. And the finesse comes with just practice, picking up those other types of skills. Her hours at Princeton really helped developed her.”
Kim agreed with her daughter that Fithen did not impose her will on trying to score during her first few years, out of respect for the older players.
“Now, she’s kind of leading by example and taking those opportunities when they’re there,” Kim said.
Fithen also has five assists, including one to Fran Sferra on the game-winning goal in overtime when Hopewell upset Robbinsville, 1-0, on Oct. 11.
“I’ve been with Fran since freshman year,” Fithen said. “We always talk about working well together, because we play club together too. Princeton really helped us on and off the field to become close. When she scored on my hit, that was icing on the cake.”
With one year remaining, Fithen has begun to contact colleges and has Fairfield on her radar. She watched the Stags defeat Rider on Oct. 15 and has emailed them.
“I want to major in education, and Fairfield was recommended by an eighth-grade English teacher,” she said. “I thought I would keep that in mind. When I heard they were pretty good in field hockey, I thought ‘Oh, well that’s good too.’ I went to the campus, it was beautiful. I was looking for a traditional campus, they really hit the mark on that one.”
Just as Fithen really hit the mark in deciding what sport was the right one for her.