TopOfTheCircle.com

Serving the scholastic field hockey and lacrosse community since 1998

Jan. 19, 2019 — The start of a risky road

This morning at 7 a.m., in Valencia, Spain, a whistle will blow and there will be a familiar whisking together of composite sticks against a plastic ball on a water-based artificial turf.

The 2019 FIH Pro League will start with current FIH men’s World Cup holders Belgium going against host Spain in the first game of a long, bifurcated road to the 2020 Olympics.

As things stand now, there are three avenues to qualification for the Olympics:

  1. Host nation
  2. Continental champion
  3. Win a two-game series as a qualifier from either the Hockey Pro League or the FIH Hockey Series

No. 3, for me, is a bit of a head-scratcher. For all of what the FIH Pro League is supposed to engender (television rights, sponsorships, home support to engender), the League only qualifies four teams into the final round of Olympic qualifications. Meanwhile, the Hockey Series, which are three eight-nations tournaments being held this summer, will qualify six total teams.

Now, there’s one wrinkle that’s already happened on the men’s and the women’s side: because Japan is the host nation and swept last fall’s Asia Cups, there is one more slot for each gender to contest for final qualifications. The qualifiers for those games will be the next-highest spot in world ranking.

In addition, there is another wrinkle. The last couple of Olympic cycles, the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee has prevented both the men’s and women’s teams from playing in the Olympics, citing the low level of competition in the African Olympic qualification tournament.

It could very well be that mid-level women’s teams like the United States, China, Belgium, and South Korea could be in for tremendous fights in the final round of qualifying should they fail to win their continental qualifying tournaments.

And, it could very well be that a highly-ranked team not already qualified (New Zealand? China?) will get back-doored into the Olympics on world ranking.

So, bearing in mind that it may be possible to “back in” to an Olympic berth at several junctures in this process, let the games begin.

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Jan. 18, 2019 — Another shoe drops in East Lansing

Use whatever metaphor or simile you want to describe the fallout over the Larry Nassar investigations at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

They apply.

And with the latest resignation, that of interim MSU president John Engler, over some outrageous statements over the victim status of more than 300 young women athletes, enough shoes have dropped to make an Imelda Marcos starter kit.

Engler, the former three-term governor of Michigan, is the latest of nearly 20 departures, resignations, or indictments which have been linked to the arrest and conviction of Nassar, the former team doctor for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics who has been sentenced to hundreds of years in prison for sexual assault and child molestation.

Engler did the unthinkable this week when he made remarks marginalizing the victims, implying that they were enjoying their time in the spotlight.

The words were spoken with a tone-deafness that has seemed to have enveloped the political landscape over the last few years.

Anyone who watched the ESPY Awards and the video of the Nassar hearings could have easily discerned that the women in court and on that stage would have rather been doing anything else. Only their determination put them in the public eye, even decades after being abused. Indeed, even though there were some 140 Nassar survivors attending the ESPYs and accepting the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, there were nearly 200 more victims who were not on stage.

And there are probably dozens more who have never come forward to the authorities because they are either too traumatized or who don’t want to create extra fuss. That’s what’s mind-boggling about some of these crimes.

Though the universe of discourse of victims at trial may have been a small handful, the known impact is hundreds.

And I have a feeling a lot more suits aren’t going to have their jobs a year from now.

Jan. 17, 2019 — Unequal treatment on TV, yet again

The Big East Conference has been scrambled and shaken over the last few years, owing to conference reconstruction particularly in men’s basketball.

These days, the Big East does have some good programs; on the men’s side, Denver University won an NCAA championship a few years back, and on the women’s, Georgetown made a pair of Final Fours at the inception of the 21st Century.

But when the television schedule for Big East lacrosse was released today, it was notable for only one thing: inequality.

The schedule has six men’s lacrosse games spread across the Fox and CBS Sports networks, while the women have just one.

One. And it isn’t even a conference matchup: instead, the only time any of the networks are willing to show a Big East women’s team is when Maryland makes the 12-mile drive to Georgetown University.

The student-athletes on the women’s lacrosse teams at Butler, Villanova, Denver, Marquette, and Old Dominion should be up in arms, as they won’t get a single minute of TV exposure in the network schedule.

This space certainly notices the discrimination.

Jan. 16, 2019 — The unreachable goal?

Six weeks ago, we wrote this.

The last couple of days, this happened.

I don’t know the gory details about how many pledges that the fund for the University of Pacific field hockey team has received, or whether they have a well-heeled donor to perhaps push the number over the top.

But what I know is this: if this is the kind of thing that is to be repeated at 80 NCAA Division I field hockey programs and/or others who don’t have the full financial support of the athletics departments of their particular schools, I don’t see a way forward for the sport as is currently constructed.

Jan. 15, 2019 — The case for …

The last week or so, I’ve posted some paragraphs of some of the great scorers in the history of American scholastic field hockey. They are amongst the greatest the game has ever seen, but there are other players who didn’t put up the kinds of gaudy numbers as the people we’ve talked about the last several days.

You have to think of Katelyn Falgowski, who was a skilled midfielder at Wilmington St. Mark’s (Del.), and joined the senior national team at the age of 15, played in three Olympics, and received more than 250 caps.

Her contemporary Katie O’Donnell could have added to her total of 142 goals with Ambler Wissahickon (Pa.) had she not been called into the U.S. women’s national side at the age of 16. Her skills and technical ability on the frontline were in a universe of discourse limited to a very select few, even today.

And then, there’s Patti Shea, who didn’t win a single game in high school for Belmont (Mass.), but her abilities in the striking circle caught the eye of Pam Hixon, who not only coached her at the University of Massachusetts, but also with the U.S. women’s national team program in the mid-1990s. Shea was the idol and model for thousands of goalkeepers in that era.

You also have to include Erin Matson, who had nearly 90 goals in just two years of scholastic field hockey with Kennett Square Unionville (Pa.)before opting to train and play full-time with the U.S. women’s national team.


So, who’s the greatest scholastic field hockey player of all time? It’s hard for this site to say, but I think it would be easier for one of today’s players to adapt to thicker mulberry sticks and grass pitches than it would be for one of yesteryear’s players to jump on turf and play with a composite.

Too, today’s players have an edge in terms of sport-specific training, dieting, and tactics than ever before. And nobody back in the day had to face teams that would string together nearly a decade’s worth of state championships in a row, such as Voorhees Eastern (N.J.), a Watertown (Mass.), a Bethesda-Chevy Chase (Md.), or a Shrub Oak Lakeland (N.Y.).

In truth, my thought experiment has given me a Hobson’s choice between midfielders: Mackenzie Allessie and Katelyn Falgowski. Let’s see if the former is able to have the international career of the latter.

Jan. 14, 2019 — The case for Mackenzie Allessie

Last in a series of posts laying out arguments for the greatest scholastic field hockey player of all time.

It was Nov. 21, 2014 when Austyn Cuneo scored her final goal for Voorhees Eastern (N.J.). Who knew that, nine months later in a small village five miles west of the USA Field Hockey training center at Spooky Nook, that an equally prodigious scoring career would begin?

Mackenzie Allessie’s prowess as a field hockey player was known through rumor from her time in the indoor game. During one of these tournaments, she was introduced to Jessica Rose Shellenberger, the two-time All-American who gave her one-on-one coaching.

Their familiarity certainly clicked when Allessie first joined Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.) as a freshman, and Allessie, part of an all-star lineup including three age-group national teamers, rang up 60 goals.

Of course, the concept of 60 goals as a ninth-grader wasn’t a difficult one to wrap your mind around, but it was the way she scored some of her goals that was eye-popping.

If you ever get a full game-tape of her first-round state tournament game Nov. 14, 2015, against Radnor Archbishop Carroll (Pa.), you will understand her all-around skills and prowess. First of all, there was that eighth-minute goal where she had all kinds of time and room to change then angle of what had been a 1-up corner play, then slid a backhand shot past the diving Carroll keeper.

But you have to remember that Allessie, for all of her offensive prowess, was a midfielder, and as such, was on the penalty corner defense unit. In the 24th minute of play, she made a backhand clear out of the circle that was maybe shin-high, going over one opposing stick and under another. A half-minute later, classmate Lily Saunders finished off a 3-on-1 which gave Donegal a 3-1 lead.

Twelve minutes later, Allessie threw an aerial into the attacking third, which Saunders latched onto to score. Ten minutes later, she crossed up two Carroll defenders on a curving run into the circle and slipped a shot that beat the goalkeeper, but was saved off the line by an alert Archbishop Carroll defender.

This space wrote that day, “Allessie is an absolute magician with the stick. She makes plays that are off the charts for somebody who is 14 years old.”

To her credit, she kept improving, scoring 76 goals in a sophomore year which saw her and the Indians win the PIAA Class AA state championship, then 91 goals her junior year.

The 2018 season for Allessie was one for the ages. In early October, she became the second player to score 300 goals for a scholastic career. A week later, she broke Cuneo’s all-time record for goals in a season. Four days later, she not only became the first field hockey player to break the 100-goal mark in a season, but she broke Cuneo’s all-time record for goals in a career.

Allessie could have relaxed after all that, but the Indians were on a mission to win a second state championship. And on Nov. 17, 2018, that mission was accomplished. In the sixth minute of overtime against Palmyra (Pa.) in the PIAA Class AA final.

Donegal withstood four consecutive Palmyra penalty corners, then Allessie took the game on her shoulders. She self-started on the free-out from the 16 and kept on running, cut left into the circle, rounded the goalkeeper, and scored a backhander to win the game. It was an astonishing goal, but an appropriate one to end an astonishing career.

A month later came an equally astonishing announcement: Allessie was being called in to the U.S. senior women’s national team, and would be training with the U.S. team on a full-time basis before matriculating to Ohio State University.

Jan. 13, 2019 — The case for Austyn Cuneo

One in a series of posts laying out arguments for the greatest scholastic field hockey player of all time.

It was sometime around mid-October 2011, when you compiled the game-by-game statistics, that the realization came like a lightning bolt: Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) has got another scorer. And her name is Austyn Cuneo.

The two decades’ worth of excellence for the Eastern field hockey team isn’t just great coaching, but is a product of individual brilliance harnessed towards a team goal.

Or in the case of Cuneo, 327 of them. The relentless center forward put in the work, whether it was slogging in wet grass or playing on turf. She scored on long penalty corner shots, strokes, and even in offensive breaks where it sometimes it appeared she was flying along the surface of the earth on the way to goal.

Cuneo also served the team on the penalty corner defense unit as corner flyer, the single most high-risk position, I think, in all of scholastic sport, one where a player willingly gets into a patch of a five-ounce ball of plastic which can travel more than 80 miles an hour.

She put her individual success towards team goals as the Vikings went 106-0-1 in her scholastic field hockey career. This wasn’t against poor competition; the team played against outstanding sides such as Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.), Millersville Penn Manor (Pa.), Louisville Sacred Heart (Ky.), and Newtown Square Episcopal Academy (Pa.).

Cuneo helped Eastern to four straight Group IV titles and three Tournaments of Champions. Indeed, it was only a force of nature that kept her from winning four: the remnants of Hurricane Sandy threw a spanner in the works of the 2012 NJSIAA postseason schedule and terminated the season at the group finals stage.

Cuneo made an impact on the international level when asked: she played for the United States in the qualifier for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, leading the team in scoring. After a pair of injury-plagued seasons at North Carolina, she transferred to Rutgers, where she helped lead the Scarlet Knights to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 32 years.

Her tally of 327 goals was thought to be unreachable at the time it was set.