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Dec. 10, 2019 — The State of Hockey, 2019

The current state of field hockey in America should sound familiar if you have been around the game a while: the U.S. is going into an Olympics without a ticket on both the men’s and women’s sides, there are occasional squabbles about whether boys should be allowed to play on the high-school levels, and an ACC field hockey team is the finest in all the land.

In short, the game is exactly where it was 20 years ago.

The struggles of the U.S. men, a group of ragtag players without a national league, without any varsity play in the NCAA and with only a handful of players in the developmental pipeline, are entirely predictable.

But the seeming collapse of the U.S. women’s team, just five years removed from a fourth-place finish at the FIH Women’s World Cup, is a staggering development, especially given the tens of millions of dollars spent on the sport since 2001.

A change in head coach was announced in late 2019, and I believe there are more changes ahead, given the grievances outlined in a Change.org petition which received more than 5,000 signatures in less than a month.

The failure of the U.S. women’s team came on the heels of a subpar performance in the FIH World League, winning two games and losing 16. The team also underperformed at the Pan American Games, failing to make the gold-medal match for the first time since 1991.

While the U.S. high-performance system has struggled, there have been some remarkable achievements elsewhere in domestic field hockey.

The University of North Carolina, featuring Team USA’s Erin Matson, went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in NCAA Division I. The Heels were not only the nation’s only undefeated team, no other Division I side had fewer than two defeats.

The NCAA Division II championship was won by West Chester University, while Middlebury won the Division III title. In collegiate club play, Northeastern won the National Field Hockey League, Cornell won the New York State Club Field Hockey League, and the University of California, San Diego won the Western Collegiate Field Hockey Conference.

At the scholastic level, the Score-O decade continued, with nine more players hitting the 50-goal mark for a season and five achieving status in the 30-goal and 30-assist club for a season. We also have had the unique situation of Lucas Crook, a senior at Somerset-Berkley (Mass.) not only becoming the first male player to get 100 assists in a career, but the first male to get 50 goals in a season. He also became one of less than a dozen field hockey players to get 100 goals and 100 assists for a career.

Perhaps the biggest story of the domestic field hockey season was that a national high school tournament was conceived and held with 36 championship-level teams playing 41 games over three days at The Proving Ground in Conshohocken, Pa. in late September.

Field hockey supporters got to see players and teams which were dominant in the present, but also got to see such teams as future VHSL Class 6A winner Langley (Va.), future Michigan Division I champion Dexter (Mich.), and future NEPSAC Flight A champion Greenwich Sacred Heart (Conn.).

Also circulating on the grounds were the field hockey teams from Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) and Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.), two teams which seemingly followed each other throughout the Northeast U.S. throughout the fall.

These two rivals in The Garden State Firm had met each other Sept. 14th with Oak Knoll winning 4-1. Two weeks later, they teams were both at the National High School Invitational, playing non-common opponents. Two weeks after that, Oak Knoll came to McAleer Stadium to fill an open date on its schedule against Louisville Sacred Heart (Ky.) the same weekend that the Valkyries and Kingston Wyoming Seminary (Pa.) came to play Eastern.

Five weeks after, it was Oak Knoll meeting Eastern for the 2019 Tournament of Champions, as the Royals held the state’s non-public championship and Eastern had won the Group IV title (for the state’s largest schools) for the 20th consecutive season.

Though Eastern showed its intensity and skill throughout, Oak Knoll was just a bit better throughout. The Royals took two pages from the Eastern playbook. One was to score within five minutes of the beginning or end of a period. All four of Oak Knoll’s goals were scored within five minutes of halftime; two in the first half, two in the second.

The other page that Oak Knoll adopted was attacking a defense with speed and skill. The opening goal from Bridget Murphy saw her burst through a seam into a space about eight yards deep. The final goal for Oak Knoll was a bit of passing brilliance as Murphy struck a bouncing pass that Lily Ramsey crafted into the goal with an extremely deft touch. The four-goal burst was the story in a 4-1 win.

While Eastern was still able to maintain its 21-year championship streak, another significant title skein was ended. Los Gatos (Calif.) was going for its seventh consecutive CIF Central Coast Section title, but were beaten by San Jose Archbishop Mitty (Calif.), a loss which broke the team’s 128-game unbeaten string.

 

Dec. 9, 2019 — An unbelievable penalty that should give pause

Today, it was announced that the International Olympic Committee was instituting a blanket four-year ban on international competition by athletes representing the Russian Federation.

This follows on the blanket ban of the Russian Olympic team in Rio, was extended through PyeongChang, and now runs through the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics.

This means that there are going to be two entire Olympic cycles without full participation from Russian athletes. Any athlete from Russia who wishes to participate in an Olympics is now required to compete as an unaffiliated athlete.

The ban from international competition is not only for multisport athletic competitions such as the Olympics. It also extends to the next FIFA World Cup in 2022. Oddly enough, it does not affect Russian participation in the European Championship for men’s soccer next year, as UEFA is not defined as a “major event organization” regarding drug testing.

Now that Russia is now pretty much a pariah in world sport, it’s instructive to note that it could have very easily been the United States in this position, given its role in sports doping in the last 90 years.

Let’s not forget the United States has mixed controlled substances with sport as early as the 1930s, when the six-day bicycle race required teams to ride lap after lap on a velodrome over the course of six days.

The United States, thanks to a long-forgotten team physician named John Ziegler, introduced the oral anabolic steroid methandrostenolone by 1960.

And let’s also not forget that BALCO, the laboratory that developed so-called “untraceable” steroids, was founded in California. The company’s athletic portfolio included a raft of American athletes such as Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, and Bill Romanowski.

Makes you wonder if there’s more coming down the pike when it comes to blanket bans of athletes.

Dec. 8, 2019 — Carroll Spinney, 1933-2019

You may not know Carroll Spinney by name, but you certainly know his work if you have been paying attention the last 50 years.

Spinney, who died this morning, was the voice of two of the most diametrically opposed characters on Sesame Street: the happy-go-lucky Big Bird, and the cantankerous Oscar The Grouch.

In that first year, 1969, both Muppets looked somewhat different from what they look like now. Big Bird looked a little threadbare in his head and neck areas, but since then the Children’s Television Workshop has worked to fill out his facial area with bright, wide yellow feathers. Oscar, in Sesame Street’s first season, had orange fur instead of green.

Spinney, for 49 years, voiced both Oscar and Big Bird. This also included him having to climb inside an eight-foot suit, extend one arm over his head to work Big Bird’s mouth, and having to share space inside of the suit with a TV monitor to help him navigate his surroundings.

It was the bulk and complexity of the Big Bird costume which may have saved Spinney’s life back in 1986. Spinney was invited by NASA to fly on a Space Shuttle mission to spark interest in science amongst children. But there wasn’t enough room in the cargo hold for the Big Bird costume.

That mission turned out to be the ill-fated flight of the Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds into flight, killing all seven crew including the first “teacher in space,” Christa McAuliffe.

Instead, Spinney would die of natural causes today — the same day Sesame Street is inducted into The Kennedy Center Honors.

Highly appropriate, and very poignant.

Dec. 7, 2019 — No one left behind

A group of four women approached the table, seeking entry to the event.

“We’d hate to give you our sob story,” the leader of the group said, “but this is all we have.”

She spread out an oddment of bills, and the amount to admit the four people was three dollars short.

The dance promotion with which I’m involved on some Saturdays is very much a mom-and-pop operation in many ways. One of those ways is that the promotion doesn’t take credit cards, which seems to befuddle many of the patrons.

But what often befuddles me is that there is now a growing segment of the U.S. population who have gone to paperless or electronic transactions. I was always raised to carry a little money around with me at all times in case of an emergency — “empty bladder, full wallet when you travel,” as they say.

“Three dollars?” I asked the group in front of me.

“Yes.”

Rarely have three bucks come out of my wallet so willingly.

Dec. 6, 2019 — United States Coach of the Year, the nominees

The United States Coach of the Year Award is given to a head coach or co-head coaches who made a noticeable difference in the performance of a scholastic field hockey team in a particular season. The coaching performance is not limited to progress made in the year which the award is given.

Here are this year’s nominees:

Erin Creznic, Los Angeles Harvard-Westlake (Calif.) — Winning has become a habit for the team the last three years, winning the Los Angeles Field Hockey Association title while remaining unbeaten

Adrienne DiSipio, Burlington (N.J.) Township — Township was very much a marginalized side for most of the last 30 years, but this year DiSipio completely changed the culture and brought the Falcons their first NJSIAA South Jersey sectional championship

Casey Eck, Easton (Pa.) — Red Rovers won their first PIAA Tournament game in 30 years, but lost a close match to the defending state champions in the quarterfinal round

Ali Good, Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) — Took the Royals’ show on the road this year and swept two games at the National High School Invitational and also won at Mamaroneck (N.Y.) and Greenwich (Conn.) Academy

Danyle Heilig, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) –Her Vikings not only won a 21st consecutive state championship, but had a schedule which included wins over multiple state champions

Jodi Hollamon, Delmar (Del.) — This young and extremely skilled side has its best days ahead of it, with several players in the lineup who started for the team while still in middle school

Stephanie Kearns, Newtown (Conn.) — With an offensive-minded lineup as well as ten seniors, the Nighthawks had an undefeated regular season

Lynn Mittler, St. Louis Mary Institute-Country Day School (Mo.) — Overcame two years’ worth of heartache in the Midwest Tournament final and finally beat St. Louis Villa Duchesne (Mo.) with a late goal

Stephanie Nykaza, Winnetka New Trier (Ill.) — Veteran coach had a number of major victories this year including gripping OT wins against Villanova Academy of Notre Dame de Namur (Pa.) and Lake Forest (Ill.), the latter of which clinched the state title

Gwen Smith, New Hope-Solebury (Pa.) — Took what had been a program which had averaged about three wins per season and transformed them into a skilled collective that shut out 22 consecutive opponents in 2019

Jen Sykes, Guilderland (N.Y.) — Coming over from Clifton Park Shenendehowa (N.Y.), she has given Guilderland immense confidence and the team has responded in kind. The team was the first to win its sectional and to win a state playoff match

Kim Underwood, West Lawn Wilson (Pa.) — Her vision 11 years ago of starting a youth field hockey league, then drawing players from it, paid off handsomely as a team with her twin daughters Reagan and Bryn won the PIAA Class AAA state championship

The recipient will be announced December 27.

Dec. 5, 2019 — The sound of silence

About three weeks ago, members of the U.S. men’s and women’s senior national field hockey teams started a petition on the Change.org platform asking the board of USA Field Hockey to re-examine many of the ways it goes about its business.

A couple of things have already happened. One was the firing of women’s national team head coach Janneke Schopman. The second was that the States would be playing its home FIH Pro League matches at Karen Shelton Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. rather than at Spooky Nook in Lancaster, Pa.

But as the calendar has moved from November to December, there has been a very uneasy silence. Players, staff, board members, have all been extremely hesitant to talk to at least three journalists who have been on this story.

And, quite frankly, if I was to show up in Lancaster tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t get anywhere, either. And with good reason.

These are fraught times as the 100th anniversary of the United States’ first international women’s match approaches. Right now, I am perceiving a number of parties who are representing different interests in the sport, and none of them seem to be able to get the upper hand.

First, the petitioners, which, we can assume, is a pretty good chunk of the current U.S. women’s player pool, with some support from some who have left the team in the previous year or two. After the initial Instagram post, the number of signatories stalled at slightly over 5,500, where it has remained like an occluded weather front.

Second, the board of directors. They, along with the current Board Chair, have been asked by the petitioners to make a number of changes within the sport, even with the U.S. Olympic Committee set to make a funding cut to the national governing body for failing to make the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Third, Spooky Nook. There is now all sorts of speculation as to whether USA Field Hockey is going to leave the facility altogether, even as the two sides plan the replacement of an outdoor turf which the petition has said was “condemned.”

Spooky Nook, oddly enough, is the determinant in this entire situation. The indoor sports complex jumped on a wave of pay-to-play youth sports in this country which, according to year-old estimates, is a $17 billion industry.

Look at that number again, folks. That’s more than twice the gross revenue of the NFL.

And while I don’t have figures in front of me, I’d be willing to posit that the current cash flow of Spooky Nook, through its rec leagues, memberships, and the on-site hotel and restaurant, is enough so that the departure of any and all field hockey activities would not have a long-term impact the facility’s bottom line.

Which is why the silence is deafening in Lancaster. Let’s see where this goes.

Dec. 4, 2019 — Coming soon: a smaller game with a bigger debut

A couple of weekends ago, the U.S. women’s national lacrosse team played a Women’s Professional Lacrosse League all-star team in the Fall Classic.

There weren’t that many people to bear witness to the 6-v-6 game played to the proposed “Olympic” rules, but in a couple of years, there’s going to be a more sizable audience for the new rules package.

That audience is going to be the World Games, which are coming in 2021 to Birmingham, Ala.

The World Games are an international multisport competition on par with the Olympics, but feature athletic competitions which are not found there. These include games such as indoor field hockey, bowling, netball, and various combat sports such as karate, sumo, and kickboxing.

Lacrosse’s brave new first step on the international scene will feature eight teams in teach competition, and there are no slouches in either the men’s or women’s tournaments. The United States, Canada, Team GB, and Australia are the medal favorites, though the Stars and Stripes will be expected to win, being the home team.

And I’ll be interested to see whether this bastardized form of the game will survive the scrutiny of two eight-team international tournaments.