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June 23, 2017 — From early commitment to early matriculation

There have been plenty of stories about the excesses of college sports, where coaches have gotten verbal commitments from middle-schoolers in the revenue sports.

More recently, the controversy was about how non-revenue athletic programs, such as those found in field hockey and lacrosse, were seeking verbal commitments from ninth and 10th-graders. And it even got to the point where a verbal commitment from a seventh-grader got the NCAA lacrosse coaches to write regulations preventing that from happening again.

In field hockey, there have been plenty of pressures felt by players as young as ninth grade to make a commitment. And it’s gotten to the point where high-school seniors have begun to gray-shirt (or green-shirt, depending on the terminology) onto college teams as students who finish their high-school curriculum a semester early.

Because of spring field hockey, it is thought that bringing in second-semester seniors would help in their overall development not only as an athlete, but as a student.

Chantae Miller, who was a six-year varsity player with Williamsville (N.Y.) North last decade, was persuaded to join the Michigan State team six months early. There have been others, including prominent youth national teamers such as Mayv Clune, who left Bethlehem Moravian Academy (Pa.) just weeks after leading them to a state title and joined up with the University of Maryland.

But more recently, there have been players who have taken an even greater leap. At least two Division I players have, or are in the process of, skipping their senior years of playing field hockey to join up with a college program a year before schedule.

It’s happened at Princeton University, where Elise Wong finished up her high-school credits at Lake Forest (Ill.) and by the fall of 2015, was starting for the Tigers before she could earn a learner’s permit in some states.

This past week, goalie Emma Likly of Wilton (Conn.) graduated from high school a year early so that she could attend Syracuse University.

“It was definitely a difficult decision because I wasn’t thinking about going to college next fall,” Likly tells The Hour. “But I already was so excited to go there and I just know that it’s such a great program, it’s such a great school, so I thought, ‘Why not get a head start on it?’ ”

But given the talent identification and development apparatus for USA Field Hockey now targeting younger players such as Erin Matson for senior duty, having colleges coming in and getting early matriculations of high-school players is a different matter altogether.

You see, in many athletic competitions, having an extra year’s maturity is seen as a plus. Preparatory schools in the northeast U.S. give football and basketball players a chance to get one or two years more size and speed before entering college a year or two later than their peers.

Yet, at least in the case of Wong and Likly, it’s the polar opposite.

Asking young people’s bodies to adjust to situations more suited to the mature athlete is a risk. Just ask legions of burnt-out and injured gymnasts, soccer players, and figure skaters. I’ll be interested to see if this trend works out for all concerned.

June 22, 2017 — One missing piece

They held the graduation ceremony yesterday for Philadelphia Strawberry Mansion (Pa.) at the Independence Seaport Museum.

In attendance was Jazmine Smith, the lacrosse and field hockey impresario who has invested more than a year of time and some of her own money into bringing these two sports to the school, which at one time was the epitome of decay and violence in inner-city America, but has now brought hope to players in the Eyekonz field hockey and lacrosse programs, as well as the Mansion Knights varsity programs, which Smith has coached.

But next year, the high-school programs will no longer have Smith’s imprint. According to this ESPNW story, she was dismissed from varsity coaching just this past May, as the Knights’ lacrosse season ended.

The ESPNW story, plus this one from The Huffington Post, neatly show an interesting dance between the behemoth School District of the City of Philadelphia against a one-woman titanic Title IX tornado, having to fight to get everything from equipment to uniforms to transportation for the teams.

And it is that last element which was a particular sore spot for the Strawberry Mansion kids. On many gamedays this year, nobody within the School District of the City of Philadelphia bothered to schedule a bus for the Strawberry Mansion field hockey and lacrosse teams.

That, in an of itself, is a blatant and naked violation of federal law under Title IX of the 1972 Civil Rights Act.

Smith called the city out on it.

And was let go.

That does not sit right with me at all.  You’d think that, after the money damages that Tracey Greisbaum and her life partner won after filing suit against the University of Iowa, that other institutions of higher learning would have learned their lesson.

They haven’t.

Yet.

June 21, 2017 — Tony DiCicco, 1948-2017

As long as there has been a U.S. women’s national soccer team, there have been great players and teams which have won three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. The women have blazed a trail for personal and team success that has impacted American and world culture far beyond what had ever been dreamed about when the States first created a select team for a game in Blaine, Minn. some 30 years ago.

While there have been gritty defenders, stellar goalkeepers, steady midfielders, and electric attackers, there has also been talent on the bench. Anson Dorrance won the inaugural Women’s World Championship with its ersatz 80-minute halves (it would only be recognized as the first World Cup years later. Greg Ryan had a remarkable run of success in the 2000s, losing only a single game in regulation over his 55-game tenure, but it was that one game — a 4-0 defeat by Brazil at China 2007 — that has defined his legacy.

Pia Sundhage, the first foreign-born coach and first woman to coach the team full-time, coached the side not only to two gold medals in the Olympics, but was the coach on the sidelines for two of the most dramatic goals in the history of football, regardless of gender.

But what started the hype machine for the U.S. women’s national team effort were the players who matured and then excelled under Tony DiCicco.

DiCicco had the unenviable task of replacing Dorrance as the U.S. manager for FIFA’s second world-level championship tournament in Norway in 1995. It was an opportunity for the U.S. women to defend their M&M’s Cup from China in 1991, but it was also an opportunity for the women to get televised exposure in the States.

In that second Women’s World Cup, the games were on ESPN2 live from Norway, usually in the morning. And they made for great theater, especially when DiCicco had to roll the dice in a group-stage match against Denmark and put scoring star Mia Hamm in goal for the last couple of minutes when Briana Scurry was sent off for leaving the 18-yard box in the act of punting the ball downfield.

DiCicco was therefore used to playing a hunch and gambling a bit when the 1999 Women’s World Cup came down to a penalty shootout against China.

What most people don’t know is that the fifth shooter for the States in that game was supposed to have been Julie Foudy. However, DiCicco had noticed that defender Brandi Chastain was almost machine-like in practice taking them with her non-dominant foot.

Plus, given Chastain’s history with the team, having had to earn her way back into the lineup after some time out of the elite pool. DiCicco knew she had the determination in that moment to beat Gao Hong with a shot into the side netting.

Without Tony DiCicco, there wouldn’t have been the bra-bearing celebration, or 90,123 people in the Rose Bowl clapping and cheering, or even a sustainable professional league like there is today. While he could have used his considerable pull within the industry to become a motivational speaker or a guest coach anywhere in the world, he instead stuck with the WUSA’s front office, and coached the WPS version of the Boston Breakers.

Tony DiCicco died on Monday evening. And the world of women’s sports is diminished without him.

June 20, 2017 — Top 10 for the week of June 18

With the end of the scholastic girls’ lacrosse season last weekend, we come back with this week’s back-of-the-envelope Top 10. It will be the last one before our better-researched Final Top 50 comes out. The Top 10 are not guaranteed to be in the same order when that list is released.

Our honorary No. 11 Team of the Week is the junior varsity team at Nantucket (Mass.), which finished with an undefeated record this season.

1. Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.) 22-0

Season complete: Beat Towson Notre Dame Prep (Md.) 12-9 in IAAM Class “A” championship game; win streak now at 177 games

2. Glenelg (Md.) 20-0

Season complete: Gladiators beat Bel Air C. Milton Wright (Md.) in MPSSAA Class 3A/2A final

3. Mount Sinai (N.Y.) 18-2

Season complete: beat Honeoye Falls-Lima (N.Y.) 15-4 to win Mustangs’ third straight state championship

4. San Diego Torrey Pines (Calif.) 23-0

Season complete: Beat a very good Poway (Calif.) side in the CIF San Diego Open Division championship

5. Towson Notre Dame Prep (Md.) 17-2

Season complete: Blazers had momentum in the first half and the lead until McDonogh went on a 7-0 run to turn a 4-3 deficit into a 10-4 lead

6. Bridgewater-Raritan (N.J.) 22-1

Season complete: Beat Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) 7-6 to win its first NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title

7. Rosemont Agnes Irwin (Pa.) 21-5

Season complete: Beat Newtown Square Episcopal Academy (Pa.) 14-7 in PAISAA final

8. Alexandria Bishop Ireton (Va.) 19-5

Season complete: Cardinals got the ball in overtime and overcame a late comeback in the VISL title match against Alexandria St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes (Va.)

9. Radnor Archbishop Carroll (Pa.) 23-1

Season complete: After so many years of trying, this talented senior-laden side beat Springfield (Pa.) in the PIAA Class AAA final

10. Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) 21-5

Season complete: Royals, the state Group I champions, almost won second T of C in three years, but fell short to Bridgewater-Raritan, a school with a 9-12 enrollment more than 10 times Oak Knoll’s size

11. Nantucket JV (Mass.) 9-0

Season complete: Head coach Jami Lower’s crew now determined to emerge on the varsity in 2018 and beyond

And bear in mind: Darien (Conn.) 20-3, Lewes Cape Henlopen (Del.) 16-2, Orlando Bishop Moore (Fla.) 20-4, Milton (Ga.) 19-4, Marriottsville Marriotts Ridge (Md.) 12-4, Moorestown (N.J.) 21-2, Garden City (N.Y.) 20-1, Pittsford (N.Y.) 20-1, Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons (N.C.) 18-2, Upper Arlington (Ohio) 16-2, Alexandria St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes (Va.) 27-2

June 19, 2017 — A need-to-read series

The world of girls’ high school lacrosse often gets very low billing in terms of scholastic sports coverage in local newspapers. That’s what made an initiative by The Valley News of West Lebanon, N.H. so unique.

The series is called The Climb, and it follows the Lebanon (N.H.) varsity through a season of transition, where this successful team is finding it needs to turn over playing time to younger players in order to maintain its form.

Here are the 18 parts of the series, written by Tris Wykes. I think it’s the finest series written by a scholastic lacrosse writer in several years. You may need to right-click and read the parts in “incognito” mode in order to avoid hitting the News’ limit on pageciews.

June 18, 2017 — The story ends with a three-peat in an unexpected place

The 2017 domestic girls’ lacrosse season ended yesterday with championship doubleheaders in Maine and in Massachusetts. Waterboro Massabesic (Maine) and Kennebunk (Maine), a pair of schools about 10 miles from each other near the New Hampshire border, won their respective Maine Principals Association titles. Further south, Cohasset (Mass.) and Needham (Mass.) brought their respective Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to the southern suburbs of Boston.

There was one more state that finished out its girls’ lacrosse season, and it finished with a team winning its third straight state championship.

That team is Eden Prairie (Minn.), which beat Minneapolis William M. Blake (Minn.) 16-10 in the state final.

Blake had taken an early 3-0 lead, but the Eagles slowly wrested control of the game.

“They just really came out fearless,” Blake coach Sarah Fellows told The St. Paul Pioneer-Press. “They didn’t care who we were facing, and they knew they needed to start and play their game and I think we did a really good job of that.”

As so often happens, the team running out to a shock lead is not able to sustain the intensity. Eden Prairie took a 9-6 edge at the half, mainly thanks to sophomore Abby Johnson, who had six goals on the day. Senior star Naomi Rogge, who has committed to play ice hockey at Minnesota-Duluth, had four goals and an assist in the comeback.

Eden Prairie finished the season with an 18-1 record, with the only loss being to state champion Wilmette Loyola Academy (Ill.).

June 17, 2017 — More disappearing stripes

This story came out yesterday in The Washington Post.

There is a lot to digest in this, especially some of the stated reasons delineated in the article for the reasons why game officials in many sports don’t return. And they go far beyond verbal or physical abuse and confrontations.

I’ll give you some perspective on a few:

  1. Low pay. There used to be certain competitions where boys’ sports officials were paid a third more than girls’ sports. I know there are some officials organizations which have advocated for better pay, which has allowed officials to make a pretty good living. But at other times, the pay is so low that the game official loses money in the mileage needed to go the game.
  2. Cherry-picking. There are still places in the United States where coaches are allowed to choose members of the pool of game officials for postseason play. This puts coaches in the position of possibly choosing against officials who may have missed a call or judgment.
  3. Continuous development. If you watch the mini-documentaries on NFL referees, you’ll notice that the officials are coached up constantly. They watch video, take a mini-quiz, and will sometimes make up game scenarios in the form of questions to test teach other. In U.S. high schools, you can get certification in the preseason to be rated for a certain level, and you keep that level for the season no matter what happens.

But there is, I think, another reason for the lack of retention for game officials in youth sports. It’s because there is an entire new class of youth sports officials which have come into being in the last few years. These are the officials who oversee elite-level competitions sponsored by national government bodies of sport, whether it is the Olympic Development Program or the U.S. Soccer Development Academy; the National Club Championships in field hockey; or any number of travel softball, baseball, or lacrosse tournaments which have cropped up like weeds across America.

These are competitions which occur on weekends and attract elite players and teams — presumably ones who know the rules. But even then, there’s no guarantee. If you read websites carefully, you’ll note how complicated and expansive the Code of Conduct is for players, coaches, teams, and their supporters have become the last few years.

And these regulations are written for a reason.