Michael Messner, a sociologist and associate professor at USC, said the debate raises questions about "where we are at right now with gender and equal opportunity and what some of our fears might be," issues that cannot always be decided by well-meaning rules of courts. He said he believes coed play is most advantageous because it helps boys see girls as equals. But that doesn't necessarily serve girls well.
"Doesn't it make sense perhaps to say we allow women and girls to develop their own spaces, their own areas to develop bodily confidence? Maybe it is a threat if we start opening this up to boys and men," he said. "It's a sociological gray zone; it's full of contradictions."
Not everyone supports Vu's efforts to play. When the issue came up during a preseason coaches meeting, some voiced concerns about whether boys' involvement would be the death knell for a sport that struggles each year to find enough players.
"I'm happy his petition didn't go through," Huntington Beach Coach Pacita Vasquez said. "There are more sports out there for boys already. . . . If we allow boys to play, then soon there will be one less sport for girls."
But Kelli Kedis, one of Vasquez's players, said: "I've played against guys. It's no big deal. I think it's fine if they want to play with us."
Field hockey is a cross between ice hockey and soccer, in which players use sticks to hit a ball into the opposing goal. If the Southern Section can be swayed to allow Vu to play, coaches say, there are more than a dozen boys who are ready to try out for the Southern Section's 11 teams, which include Harvard-Westlake, Glendora and Bonita.
Advocates say safety isn't a concern, as long as referees call fouls on players who ignore no-contact rules. And limits on how many boys can be on the field at any one time would keep the game from being taken away from the girls, they say.
"I'm all for it; my guys want to play," Westminster Coach Dianne Pendergrass said. "There's no body contact allowed here. It's technique. It's stick work. They're not going body-to-body and pushing people over."
The issue over boys joining girls' field hockey teams has been simmering for the past 15 years.
* In 1986, senior Bobby Cole played five games for Huntington Beach Marina High School's team before someone complained, and the Southern Section forced him from the team.
* In 1993, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia unanimously overturned a decision by the lower courts, ruling that field hockey can exclude boys because it is a contact sport.
* In 1999 a Maine judge refused to lift a ban on boys participating in field hockey, concluding that the ban was needed to preserve equal athletic opportunities for girls.
As the debate stirs, even longtime advocates of all-girls play such as Newport Harbor Coach Sharon Wolfe are soul searching.
"Times are changing and we need to adjust," Wolfe said. "I'm torn in the middle. . . . Maybe it's time to allow boys to play."
Oscar Rodriguez, a 6-foot, 160-pound junior, currently trains with the Santiago High School junior varsity team. He and several boys at Westminster are awaiting the outcome of Vu's appeal.
Westminster senior Julio Mota, who trains with the field hockey team when he is not preparing to try out for boys' basketball, said he'd like to play and he doesn't mind the ribbing he takes from friends.
"They make comments . . . but it doesn't bother me," Mota said. "Field hockey isn't for sissies. It's hard work, and I have the bruises to prove it."
Anderson, the Santiago coach, said anyone who witnesses Vu's loyalty to the team would understand why the school is fighting for him. She said he is the most motivated player she has ever met, and recalled how the former cross-country runner is always the first to finish his laps, but never fails to turn back to accompany the slower runners.
"He's not out there because he wants to be the guy that plays field hockey," she said. "He's not out there to prove anything. That is the hardest thing to take, to see the desire he has and to not let him play."
Vu's challenge comes as boys' interest in the sport--and coed play--is rising.
In the United States, the only organized teams for men are at the club and national level, while the high school and college competitions are reserved for females. However, there are nine states where high school boys play on the girls' teams, according to the U.S. Field Hockey Assn.
Boys' and men's field hockey is particularly active in California.
"California is the hotbed for male field hockey right now," said Howard Thomas, spokesman for U.S. Field Hockey. "More than half of the men's U.S. National team is from California."
The sport dates back well before the ancient Olympic Games. Although the origins are unknown, 4,000-year-old drawings found in Egypt's Nile Valley depict men playing the sport. It has been played by men in the Olympics since 1908; women's Olympic competition didn't begin until 1980.
Now, the boys are back.
"If we keep pushing, maybe it will happen," Anderson said.
"I still hope I might be able to play," Vu said.