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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.

Aug. 16, 2019 — The nation’s best scholastic rivalry, amplified

Last November, the field hockey teams from Virginia Beach First Colonial (Va.) and Virginia Beach Frank W. Cox (Va.) battled for nearly 90 minutes on a frigid day in northern Virginia for the VHSL Class 6A title.

The schools are located about a mile apart, and their rivalry has become the stuff of legend even with the graduation of some legendary players over the last quarter-century.

But this year, these two schools have been moved down to VHSL’s Class 5A. The tournament has an absolute Murderers’ Row of talented programs such as Stafford Mountain View (Va.), Gloucester (Va.), Virginia Beach Princess Anne (Va.), and Fredericksburg Stafford (Va.), all of whom have won state titles in the past.

Potential opposition could also come from Stafford North Stafford (Va.), Alexandria Thomas Jefferson (Va.), and Glen Allen Deep Run (Va.), but the attention towards the end of the year will definitely be on the 18 teams in Region A, which is clustered towards the eastern part of the state.

How well will these two teams do in the region? We’ll get a first indication Sept. 17th when the two teams meet at the Regional Training Center’s turf.

Aug. 15, 2019 — Headed towards an Olympic oblivion?

Sometime in the next year and a half, the program for the 2028 Summer Olympics will be finalized.

There will be some hefty negotiation, I think, between the Los Angeles Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LA2028), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the International Hockey Federation (FIH), the world governing body for the sport of field hockey.

That’s because of speculation from some European media sources that, especially with the onset of men’s and women’s lacrosse into the Olympics by 2028, that a reduced-side tournament for field hockey will be instituted for Los Angeles, similar to what is played in the Youth Olympic Games.

Now, we’ve mentioned already that WorldLacrosse has already agreed to a six-a-side outdoor game to be the international standard, and the first tournament to test the so-called “international rules” package will be the 2021 World Games, which will be held the same summer as the next Women’s World Cup (which, we suspect, will be 10-a-side).

For field hockey to undergo the same kind of small-side indignity that rugby has gone through, with the imposition of Rugby Sevens, may be a bridge too far for FIH.

The problem, from the IOC’s side, is that they are pressing up against a hard cap of Olympic participants. They don’t want any more than the 10,500 athletes that have been the standard the last few Summer Olympics.

There have been a number of cuts in Olympic sports. The number of weight classes in boxing and wrestling have been reduced, and stricter qualifying standards have been imposed in athletics and swimming. Baseball and softball were removed altogether in 2008, only to come back next summer.

The one thing I don’t want to see is what happened with the Goodwill Games, where a number of events which were part of the original Games in 1986 got pushed aside for the benefit of either the host nation or for television. By the last Goodwill Games in 2001 in Brisbane, there were only 15 athletic disciplines contested, including that ratings dynamo, surf lifesaving.

For Los Angeles 2028, I don’t want to see a sham competition for which, thanks to the participant cap, the level of competition and excitement falls off the table.

Given what happened 96 years previously, with only Japan, India, and the host Americans playing three field hockey games in the Los Angeles Coliseum, and none of the matches were at all competitive, we have seen this already.

Aug. 14, 2019 — The start of a bureaucratic era?

It was in 2000 when I parked myself on a practice field at the United States Naval Academy to interview Kate Sobrero for a story that ran on this website.

My impression of her that day was of someone who is intelligent, polite, and very good at what she does. At the time, Sobrero was a defender for the U.S. women’s national soccer team.

This week, Kate Markgraf was selected to be the first general manager of the U.S. women’s national soccer team. This selection, along with the promotion of Earnie Stewart to be the common Sporting Director of both the men’s and women’s national programs, as well as the future hiring of a men’s national team GM, are the start of what could be a problem in the long term.

The problem is that U.S. Soccer is beginning to believe that the mere imposition of a group of people to do certain tasks — the construction of a bureaucracy — is what could help the men’s national soccer team get back to the World Cup and keep the women’s senior national team on top of the world even as all but one sub-senior national team coaching position is currently vacant.

Too, not all of American soccer is speaking with one voice. It’s still a fractured mish-mosh including a development academy, a rebel group of youth teams with its own national footprint, high schools, colleges, and several levels of semiprofessional soccer leading to MLS on the men’s side and the NWSL on the women’s.

I’m not sure that trying to organize all this is in the best interest of the game nationwide. Not one person can, I think, even if given the authority to do so.

Which, inevitably, means that Kate Markgraf, as the first to be hired as U.S. Soccer GM, is going to be the first to resign or be fired from the same position.

Such is the nature of bureaucracy.