How does one get a United States field hockey men’s national team player to speak to your high school team.
If you're Perryville High's Nicole Welsch, you simply ask.
JaJa Kentwell was happy to oblige.
"If someone asks, it's kind of difficult to say no," said Kentwell, a striker on the U.S. squad. "It was a no-brainer for me. I said of course I will do it. This game is my passion. It has given me so many opportunities to travel the world and meet great people. I feel like I have to give back to the community."
Kentwell, a striker on the national team, spent part of his 27th birthday in Perryville last Wednesday afternoon, providing instruction and advice to Panthers players.
"I found him on Instagram," said Welsch, JV coach and assistant varsity coach at Perryville. "I saw he was a University of Delaware graduate and lived nearby so I messaged him. He said he'd love to come to Perryville. He was very willing to help."
Welsch said she hoped Kentwell could convey the value of hard work. "If you continue to practice, you can succeed," she said.
Perryville varsity coach Erin Hamson was pleased Kentwell passed on stick skills and helped improve shooting and dribbling. "Some of our girls are interested in playing in college," Hamson said. "JaJa can provide information to help them to take the next step. He also inspires the girls to love the game and that will trickle down to middle school and elementary school students. They realize a fun thing you do can become a passion. They can excel and have fun and be who they are intended to be as an athlete."
Kentwell's story is uplifting. Born in China, Kentwell and his family emigrated to Pennsylvania when he was 10.
His mother, Jun, was a member of China's national field hockey team.
But like many of the Perryville players, he began playing competitive field hockey later in life than many who have reached a high level.
When Kentwell was 15, his parents founded the World Class Eagles club field hockey program. Known as the WC Eagles, it is regarded as the number one club program in the country, Kentwell said. His official national team bio says Kentwell first started playing when the WC Eagles program had just five players for a practice and needed a sixth to even the sides.
He attributes his rapid rise through the ranks to good genes and lots of hard work. "You have to practice more than anyone else to get better," he says.
While men's field hockey is exceedingly popular in many countries, that's not the case here. The women's national team is headquartered at the Spooky Nook complex in Manheim, Pa. and many of the players live and work in the area. Men's national team members are spread throughout the country and some play in Europe. "It's difficult for us to get together," said Kentwell.
When possible, they meet for training camps to prepare for international competitions. Several months ago, the U.S. squad won a Hockey Series Round 1 event in Mexico to advance to Round 2. The date and locations has not been finalized.
A few months ago, Kentwell and his teammates spent a month in Europe, playing in France, Spain, Scotland, and Ireland.
Kentwell currently lives in Spring City, Pa. which is south of Pottstown, and is the head coach of the Conestoga High School squad. Last Wednesday, he made the 90 minute trip south to help in Perryville. "I just want to encourage them to play and help them enjoy the sport," he says.
Perryville players were grateful Kentwell took the time to work with them and learned a great deal during the practice session.
Nadia Makach said Kentwell helped her improve her footwork. "That was something I struggled with," she said.
In addition to assisting with technical aspects and skills, Makach said Kentwell's overall message resonated with the Panthers. "For players looking to play at the collegiate level, it shows even if you don't start at a young age, you can still play on the national team, that girls starting later can go that far," said Makach.
Mackach's teammate, Emily Sponaugle, echoed those sentiments. "Most girls start playing in their freshman year of high school," Sponaugle said. "You don't have to play your entire life to be good."
She added that Kentwell also gave her pointers on how to get shots off from the nondominant side.
Hamson hoped Kentwell's visit inspires her players. "The biggest thing I want the girls to get out of this is a love for the game," she said.
"He started playing when he was 15 and a lot of these girls started in the sport later than girls in other counties in the state and in the tri-state area. The truth is that if you fall in love with the game, you can accomplish what you want to do."