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Proud to be a Porker

Walpole team's nickname may be unattractive, but it's a winner

Go ahead and call Bonnie Shea a Porker. She'll take it as a compliment. Compare Lauren Hartnett to a pig, and she, too, will take it as a point of pride.

''Let them call me whatever they want," said Shea, a Walpole High School senior. ''I don't care."

Generations of girls in the town of Walpole have gladly called themselves Porkers, the nickname of the high school's powerhouse field hockey team. Shea and Hartnett were cocaptains of the 2004 squad, which this fall reversed the previous season's disappointing finish, a loss in the South sectional final, by winning the ninth Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association state championship in team history.

Outsiders might not understand why -- in a culture obsessed with thinness and plagued by problems like anorexia and bulimia among teenage girls -- a town would embrace a nickname connected to swine. But they're missing the point, many local residents insist.

''People have to lighten up and get a sense of humor," said Hartnett. ''We do. Walpole High's the best field hockey team in the state. We identify with the Porkers and with everyone who's come before us."

The nickname dates to 1968, when Walpole participated in a field hockey summer camp in Maine, under the guidance of Sue Brainard, a girls' coaching pioneer who led the school's field hockey and girls' basketball teams to state prominence.

Outside the United States, field hockey is popular with both men and women, and the camp in Maine ''was run by these English guys," recalled Brainard, who is now retired and living in Hilton Head, S.C. ''It was one of the very few camps in the country being run for girls back then. They said the girls, bent over with their sticks going after the ball, looked like pigs rooting around looking for food, and they named the different teams after different parts of the pig. We got called the Porkers."

The team went home and had a successful season, then another in 1969. Along the way, the players decided that, since they played so well as the Porkers, they no longer wanted to be called the Hilltoppers, as Walpole's school teams were called then. And they stayed as the Porkers when the school changed its official nickname to the Rebels soon thereafter.

''They liked it," said Brainard, who coached the team until 1984, the year of their first MIAA state title. ''It just caught on. They kept winning and winning, and it was just one of those things that snowballs."

Walpole blossomed into one of the state's elite field hockey squads under the Porker moniker. Brainard passed the coaching mantle to her assistant, Penny Calf, who won another seven titles before retiring in 2001. Calf was succeeded by Marianne Murphy, herself a former Porker, class of 1976, who played for Brainard.

''I was a Porker then and I am a Porker now," said Murphy, whose assistant, Stacy Bilodeau, also played for Walpole. ''Is it different? Of course it is unusual. That's what makes being a Porker special. We don't have to explain anything to people from out of town. Girls all over Walpole grow up dreaming of playing for the Porkers."

Still, some question the propriety of branding a team with a name that could be interpreted as demeaning to women.

Allyce Najimy, senior associate director of operations at the Center for the Study of Sport and Society at Northeastern University, says that given changing tastes, it might be time for the team to consider finding a new nickname.

She also said it is understandable why a town might rally around the current one.

''It's a matter of tradition and pride," said Najimy, who specializes in gender issues in sports. ''In a small community like Walpole, where girls have their big sisters and mothers and aunts growing up as Porkers, the word takes on a kind of beloved connotation in the school; it is something bigger than them and it is very significant to them."

But, she added, ''Despite the intentions, it strikes me as funny that 32 years after Title IX," the federal government's mandate for gender equity in educational opportunities, including athletics, ''how a girls' team can be singled out for what many would consider a disrespectful name. It separates women from men, and sends a bad message to the community."

Shea, who will attend Northeastern in September, concedes she heard the taunts of opposing fans during her four seasons suiting up in a Porker uniform, but quickly learned to shrug it off.

''You hear some pretty nasty stuff, some words that rhyme with Porker," said Shea, the Globe's Division 1 player of the year. ''All you do is laugh at them, and work all that much harder to win; then you point to the scoreboard at the end of the game, and they usually don't have anything to say."

Shea's mother, Christine, shares those sentiments. ''We know the story behind why the Porkers are the Porkers, so why should anyone get upset?" she said. The players ''shouldn't get bothered over what ignorant people might think."

There's been no apparent movement to drop the Porker name in town. But a recent Internet message-board thread devoted to the topic on the walpole.org website drew several anonymous responses questioning its continued use.

''A new name is in order. And why would a girl want to be called a Porker?" said one message.

The posting was met with many responses defending the nickname, and Najimy says she understands why.

''It's like with the Redskins -- it's hard to get people to change," she said, referring to the NFL franchise in Washington, D.C., that has drawn criticism for its name, a term for Native Americans that some consider insulting. ''The iconography is beloved, even if outsiders may take offense."

Hartnett, who suits up for the Rebels basketball team in the winter, put her feelings this way:

''We're the nine-time state champs. I'd rather be a Porker and be part of a team with nine state title trophies than not be a Porker and not be a winner."

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