Spalding Hockey Club members took more than a passing interest in this year’s Sainsbury’s School Games held in Manchester a month ago.
Annie Dalton (17) of Surfleet, a product of the club’s junior hockey programme, was among 1,600 future sports stars who competed in the four-day multisport festival staged at nine different venues in Manchester.
Classmates and PE (physical education) teachers at Spalding High School would also have followed Annie’s exploits with the England Reds squad that eventually finished fifth in the round-robin tournament.
Annie said: “It took us a couple of games to work together but the results really didn’t reflect our performance.
“In our first game, we lost 3-1 to England Blue and then we lost 3-2 in the last 30 seconds against Scotland who then went on to win the competition.
“But in the last game, we won convincingly 4-1 against Wales.
“I was thrilled to be selected to play in the Sainsbury’s School Games as it was something I had been striving for ever since I was a spectator at the London 2012 Olympics.
“I was honoured to represent my country and excited to step out onto the pitch where I was able to interact with other athletes who made it to the Sainsbury’s School Games.
“This has inspired me to go further in what should be a strong season for my hockey team at school where our goal is to get to the Independent Schools Association (ISA) National Hockey Finals.”
Annie has come a long way since she first took to a hockey pitch as a nine-year-old near her family home in Surfleet.
A rapid rise through the junior ranks resulted in Annie playing for Spalding Ladies 1st in only her second full season, going on to represent Lincolnshire at under-15 level and later being selected for the East Midlands regional squad.
“I played with Spalding Hockey Club for seven years and I was coached by a lot of really good people,” Annie said.
“At the same time, I played for the hockey team at Spalding High School where we did pretty well, considering the fact that a lot of the players didn’t have the chance to do a lot of training.
“We had a pretty good team that reached a qualifying round to get into the National Schools Championships for Girls. I was also captain of the Lincolnshire under-17s team that won the East of England championships for the first time ever in 2013.
“My sister Emma (17) was in that team and it was amazing to make history, as well as making the coach John Kirkham proud because he had been doing the job for so many years.”
For Annie and Emma to fulfil their hockey ambitions, a change of school was required and the chance came last September when they were both offered a scholarship at Oakham School whose ex-pupils include England rugby union World Cup winner Lewis Moody, cricketer Stuart Broad and London 2012 Olympic hockey bronze medallist Crista Cullen.
Annie said: “While I was at the Junior Regional Performance Centre in Nottingham, I met the coach at Oakham School who went to my mum and offered me and my sister a scholarship.
“We started at Oakham’s sixth form last September and, at the same time, joined Beeston Hockey Club in Nottingham.
“But with school hockey matches taking place on Saturdays, we couldn’t play a lot of club hockey until the new year.
“We’ve played in a lot of under-18 matches for Beeston and came second in the league last season.”
Annie balances her hockey with International Baccalaureate (IB) studies at Oakham School, as opposed to the A-levels sixth-form students at Spalding High School are facing.
“Oakham is like a second home where they want you to have the full school experience,” Annie said.
“IB studies set you up well for university and they are a lot broader and more international than A-levels.
“There’s a lot of work but at school, a lot of people are in the same position as me and some have come to Oakham from abroad, whereas my family isn’t that far away.
“I want to go to a top university that has a good hockey system but I’m not really sure what I want to do after that.”
In the period between the school holidays and Sainsbury’s School Games, Annie took time out to go back to Spalding Hockey Club to help the next generation of young players coming through the club.
“The hockey pitches are down the road from my home so it was really nice to go back there,” Annie said.
“It was like an old family and when I was coaching the kids there, I remembered that I was in their position once.
“Without Spalding Hockey Club, I don’t think I would have got where I am now.”
Fred Morris, chairman of Spalding Hockey Club, said: “Annie still remembers her first coaching sessions at the club which inspired her from the outset and her first coach, Sam Howitt, is still with us.
“Annie and Emma progressed rapidly through the club’s junior teams and both girls made their senior league debuts for Spalding Ladies 3rd together at the tender age of 13.
“The sisters went on to become the dynamic duo of the Ladies 1st and even though they gained a scholarship to Oakham School and now play for Beeston Hockey Club, Annie and Emma are still happy to get involved at Spalding Hockey Club when they are at home.”
Annie’s experiences in Manchester will have added to her existing ideas of what it will take to fulfil her ambitions of playing for England at under-21 level and help her school win the ISA National Hockey Finals in February.
“Hockey is one of those sports that you can play forever, as long as your body will allow it,” Annie said.
“I like to keep fit and I’m quite strict on myself in having sprint sessions, going to the gym and having a strength and fitness coach.
“People tell me that I’m really healthy but you need to be dedicated to the point where what happens off the pitch matters as much as what happens on it.
“You need to keep yourself physically fit while on the pitch, you need to know what you’re going to do with the ball when you get it.”