After field hockey practice one recent evening at Moorestown ( N.J.) High, three teenage girls laden with backpacks and equipment bags headed for the parking lot. One of them stopped and shouted through the crisp twilight, "Hey, Mrs. T, we're going for pizza. You wanna come?"
Mrs. T is Bea Thomas, Moorestown's beloved field hockey goaltender coach, who has been mentoring high school athletes in southern New Jersey for 63 years. In nearly five decades as the freshman coach or a varsity assistant, the 86-year-old Thomas has helped build a powerhouse field hockey program. The Quakers have won 11 state championships in the last 22 years and have lost just one Burlington Scholastic Athletic League title since 1981.
In July the U.S. Field Hockey Association named Thomas the Developmental Coach of the Year. It was about time the rest of the country caught up with this south Jersey legend. Thomas, who taught physical education before she "retired" in 1976, began playing intramurals at Temple in the 1930s. In those days there were no women's interscholastic teams, but, says Thomas, "I knew I wanted to be an athlete when I was young."
She first picked up a field hockey stick as a college freshman, and by the time she graduated in 1933, was playing fullback and goalie on club teams in the Philadelphia Field Hockey Association. Two years later she took a job teaching and coaching high school basketball, tennis, softball, swimming and field hockey in Palmyra, N.J. After 10 years there and a few years off to raise a son and daughter with her late husband, Albert, Thomas began coaching and teaching at Moorestown in 1949.
She spent much of her storied coaching career ("I've had lots of undefeated teams—don't even ask how many," she says) as one of the country's top players as well, playing goalie on a club team chosen to represent the U.S. on a tournament swing through England, Scotland, Wales and Holland in 1953. In '64, at age 51, she was named a field hockey All-America. Through it all, Thomas stuck with the freshmen because she most enjoyed working with younger players.
Despite a creaky knee that keeps her from running as much as she used to, Thomas still barks, points and prods her way through practices and games every day. Her current troops say she's best at making field hockey fun. When Mrs. T is letting the girls spike her hair at a team sleepover, singing silly songs at parties and on bus rides, it's easy to forget she's the octogenarian in the bunch.
On the sidelines Thomas constantly hollers "Sisu! Sisu!" at her charges. "It's the Finnish word for 'spirit, determination, fight, perseverance,' all that kind of stuff," she says. "It's important that they learn those things from sports."
After 70 years on the field, Mrs. T should know.