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Aug. 23, 2019 — The next college sport network, trying to find its niche

Last night, at 7 p.m. Eastern, the ACC Network signed on.

The ESPN-backed network has been seen as a revenue stream for the schools that make up the Atlantic Coast Conference, and as a way to compete with other major conferences with sports networks such as the Pac-12 and Big Ten.

Since most ACC schools have only started practice recently, there’s precious little in the way of actual games to be broadcast. And what does a network like that do? Well, it starts off with a football talk show and a “cinema verite” documentary on a critical juncture in the career of Mike Krzyzewski’s career, when he was able to piece together a championship team with the likes of Tommy Amaker, Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, and Jay Bilas.

Looking ahead on our digital TV provider, it looks like the first game to be broadcast is in about three or four days, a women’s soccer game.

But I wonder, given ESPN’s penchant for obfuscating and marginalizing women’s sports on its major network, if the ACC Network is committed to women’s athletics, including field hockey and women’s lacrosse. These are two sports that the ACC is very good at, and almost swept both titles in the last academic year.

Too, the ACC is going to be showing off incredible, dynamic women athletes such as Erin Matson and Charlotte De Vries in field hockey, and Caitlyn Wurzburger and Izzy Smith in women’s lacrosse. And I hope the network is able to showcase these fine players and their teams in a better format than before.

Given the fact that the network is only having three conference field hockey games shown on the network this year, it is not a promising start.

Aug. 22, 2019 — Short-sided, but not short-sighted?

I wrote a few days ago about what a travesty it would be if the Olympic field hockey event went from 11-a-side to six-a-side.

But it brought me to thinking about situations where the resistance to reduced-side play was not necessarily an option. I keep reading about how some American high schools who used to play 11-man tackle football have had to start their own eight-man football leagues in order for the game to survive.

I guess I can understand that, but there will be certain dynamics that will change amongst the competitors, I think.

Take a look, for example, at international competition in a game called “futsal,” or indoor soccer. Depending on the era, it was either a game played on a hockey rink with the orange high-visibility ball used in the snow, or the more formalized game with a slightly heavier and less-filled soccer ball and out-of-bounds lines.

In world futsal, as you might expect, the world domineers of the sport are Brazil, with five world championships. But there are other interloping nations: the United States have placed as high as second in futsal World Cups, and Iran has also done very well in comparison to its outdoor team.

In Rugby Sevens, the only version now played at the Olympics, World Cups have been won by New Zealand and Wales, but also by your current Olympic champions, Fiji, an island with the population of Jacksonville, Fla.

Yep, if a nation that small can be a world powerhouse in the sport, I wonder how, for example, a nation like the U.S., which puts a lot of time and effort into indoor field hockey, would do if short-side field hockey was made into an Olympic event.

Certainly, it would be an exhibition of what the States are doing — right or wrong.

Aug. 21, 2019 — When winning and loyalty aren’t enough

After an offseason of some tumult in Madison, N.J., it appears that longtime head coach Ann Marie Davies is being shown the door by the district’s Board of Education.

Davies, a no-nonsense coach who has steered three decades’ worth of teams to more than 600 career victories, did have her year-to-year contract renewed, causing all sorts of reaction within the township of about 16,000 located hard by the town of Summit, which has had all sorts of success in the last decade in both field hockey and girls’ lacrosse.

The reaction has not only been local, but, indeed, national. A change.org petition garnered several thousand signatures.

But it seems that’s not going to be enough in the final analysis. In a recent meeting, the Board of Education did not reverse its earlier decision.

Now, I don’t know exactly what politics went into making this decision. And, after several decades watching scholastic sport, I can’t even begin to try to imagine why school boards tend to make decisions like this, to get rid of experienced coaches for seemingly no reason except for the fact that the team may have gotten “too good.”

It should frustrate, enrage, and perhaps instill fear that merit is no longer good enough to keep one’s job or ability to pursue one’s vocation in this country.

And that’s a shame.

Aug. 20, 2019 — The MPSSAA tweaks its championship chase

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, the governing body for public-school sports in The Old Line State, has never been one to stick to one particular formula for choosing a champion.

The MPSSAA has done all sorts of tinkering with its bracketologies in many sports, at one time bringing in an idea that made a whole lot of sense: in any of the four sectional brackets in the state’s four field hockey classifications, choose the four best teams on neutral power rankings (similar to the Ratings Percentage Index) so that the best teams couldn’t meet before the regional semifinal round.

Maryland, you have to realize, is a place where, if you get your bracket wrong, you wind up sending a team 120 miles through rush-hour traffic from clear down the Eastern Shore to close to Baltimore. And that could very well happen even through the state’s new regionalization of the state playoffs.

This year, every field hockey team is eligible to play in the state tournament, like it used to be in Indiana when there was a single state champion. But to get to four state champions in Maryland, you not only are declaring four sectional champions (a North, East, West, and South champion in each classification), each of the classifications in each section is divided up into two regions.

The regions are meant to divide up the competitors in the sections by county. For example, in Class 3A West and 2A West, all of the Region I teams are from Frederick County and all Region II sides are from Montgomery County.

There are times when this doesn’t work so well. In Class 4A West and 4A South, every team in both Region I and Region II are from Montgomery County. In Class 2A East, Region II has one team from Caroline County, one from Talbot, one from Wicomico, and one from Worcester. But at least, in this region, the four teams are within a reasonable distance.

But you’re in Class 1A East’s Region I, you’re reaching for your GPS as well as your gas card. It’s about 75 miles from St. Michael’s (Md.) to Elkton (Md.), with Chesapeake Bohemia Manor (Md.) and Worton Kent County (Md.) scattered in between.

Now, I can understand adding an extra level of localization amongst the field hockey teams in Maryland, since there have been times when two finalists are schools which are only a few miles apart on the map.

I’m a bit dubious on this tweak in the fabric of the Maryland state tournament. Let’s see, however, if it works out.

Aug. 19, 2019 — The Spooky Nook Effect, 2019 Edition

A decade ago, we dedicated a lot of ink (ok, megabytes) to detailing how the presence of a number of high-caliber field hockey athletes from the U.S. women’s national field hockey team were affecting the greater San Diego field hockey community after the team moved from Virginia Beach to Chula Vista in the years before the 2008 Olympics.

Players such as Tiffany Snow, Caroline Nichols, and Shannon Taylor were coaching at the youth levels and allowed their respective players and teams to get valuable experiences that only national-teamers could offer.

There has been a similar knock-on effect in Lancaster and Lebanon County in Pennsylvania since the Spooky Nook Sports Complex opened in 2013. Some of the better teams in the state have some tie to the complex. And the nation’s all-time leading goal-scorer, Mackenzie Allessie, prepped a mere three miles from the facility at Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.).

Donegal has undergone a significant coaching change over the winter, with head coach Jessica Rose Shellenberger, the 2016 TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year, moving a scant six miles east to be a health and physical education teacher at Manheim Township (Pa.). Into the Donegal coaching box this fall is 2001 TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year Amanda Janney.

The region surrounding Spooky Nook features a number of schools which have either won or finished second in PIAA championship play the last quarter-century, including Donegal, Oley (Pa.) Valley, Millerstown Greenwood (Pa.), Newport (Pa.), Palmyra (Pa.), Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite, Millersville Penn Manor (Pa.), Hershey (Pa.), Hummelstown Lower Dauphin (Pa.), Landisville Hempfield (Pa.), and Lititz Warwick (Pa.).

But I think that, with the cross-pollination of information from coaches in and around the area, there are going to be more contenders for state honors from this region the next decade or two, some of which you might not have heard of, but who have the ability to take the Spooky Nook Effect and turn it into success on the hockey pitch.

Aug. 18, 2019 — Did Olympique Lyon just pull a New York Jets?

With a 23-yard golazo from Dzsenifer Marozsán, Olympique Lyon beat the North Carolina Courage 1-0 in the final of the 2019 International Champions Cup, a four-team competition for women’s club sides which also included Manchester City and Athletico Madrid.

In the absence of a FIFA Women’s World Club Cup, this is likely the closest thing you’ll find to a world championship for women’s soccer club sides. And, I think, this is an enormous upset of near-biblical proportions. That’s because the perception has been that the best competition, the best teams always come from the National Women’s Soccer League, the current nine-team league atop the American women’s soccer pyramid.

Now, there has been some speculation in the world football intelligentsia about when a FIFA-sanctioned competition for women’s club sides would begin.

Of course, a large part of having an organized worldwide competition is how well the individual continental federations are organized, and how committed they are to the women’s game. For me, I think the most interesting areas of the world when it comes to organizing the pro game for an international club competition will be Africa and Australia.

Africa has had numerous great players on the level of Mercy Akide and Francisca Ordega, and it will be interesting to see what kind of statement a Ghanian or Nigerian side can make on the world stage. It will also be interesting to see whether women’s soccer will take root in majority-Muslim nations, where sports are often taboo for women.

Australia’s well-financed A-League has relied on a number of players coming over from other nations which already have strong domestic leagues, such as the United States. It’s entirely possible that an American player who helped an A-League team to the title in the wintertime could also come over and get an NWSL team its cup championship. The question is, which team is cup-tied to this particular player?

They’ve already solved this on the men’s side, but we’ll see if there is a “cup tied” situation for a future FIFA women’s club championship. I have a feeling it could happen sooner than anyone wants.

Aug. 17, 2019 — The prescience of Tokyo

This weekend sees the opening of the Oi Stadium, the site for the field hockey competitions at Tokyo 2020.

The stadium is within walking distance of the Oikeibajo-Mae station on the Tokyo Monorail, so it should be easy enough for you to get to if you go next year.

Test games involving India and the host Japanese are being played to test out the new blue turf and to give umpires, including American Maddie Giddens, a run-out.

But what is going to be interesting is how field hockey is going to be impacted by the concerns about the summer heat in Tokyo. When the city last hosted a Summer Olympics, the 16-day competition window was in October, not August like it will be next year. The city takes a lot of humidity because of the confluence of the Arakawa, Sumidagawa, Edogawa and Tamagawa rivers into Tokyo Bay.

The organizers have proposed some so-called “anti-heat” measures to try to cool off predicted ambient temperatures in the city, which are consistently over 87 degrees Fahrenheit in August.

Some of the anti-heat measures range from the practical (not holding certain events between 12 noon and 4 p.m.) to the kooky (asking residents along the marathon route to open their front doors to cool off the runners).

But the Oi Stadium does have a very prominent comfort feature that has was missing from the last three Olympic field hockey venues: Olympic Green Stadium in 2008, Riverside Stadium in 2012, and Deodoro in 2016.

The feature: a roof covering the spectator stand. And it’s a much, much larger canopy than there was at the Hellinikon Stadium in 2004 in Athens; it very much reminds one of a modern  soccer stadium like Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles or Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.

Well, it’s progress.