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Archive for November, 2006

Nov. 23, 2006 — Cranberry trumps Cranbarry

I’ve never been to the National Festival.

That’s a big admission from The Founder, who has known of the existence of the world’s largest field hockey tournament for at least a decade and a half.

Oh, sure, there are issues surrounding work and travel.

But there are two reasons why I’ve never taken the week to fly to a warm (Orlando yesterday notwithstanding) and sunny (ditto) location to see the spectacle.

And those two reasons are in adjoining rooms right now as I am typing this — one preparing the table, one preparing the food.

My parents are extremely important to me, as is all of my extended family. It’s much, much more than tradition that sends me on the road to my parents’ house or my sister’s ranch house for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s reconnection, even as my folks are moseying down the road of life. My father turned 84 years old yesterday. My mother will follow suit in early January.

I always wonder, every year, “Will this be the last one?” when it comes to the life events we celebrate together. That’s why I participate to the fullest whenever possible in family gatherings — whether it is two or three gathered together over Cornish game hens or the extended clan sharing sweet potatoes, my older sister’s cornbread stuffing, and a turkey the size of a small buffalo.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Nov. 22, 2006 — Meanwhile, back in Florida …

To all of the participants at the National Festival — the world’s largest field hockey tournament, by the way — I hope everyone has a good tournament with no head injuries.

And to all of you who thought it was a daft idea to have the championship in California after several years in West Palm Beach, I got one thing to say: it snowed in Orlando today.

Nov. 21, 2006 — The concept of “relegation.”

In many countries around the world, a sport played at its higher levels is organized from several dozen independent clubs in a multi-flight league. Within each flight, teams compete against each other, and the winner (plus a few high-placed teams) moves up a level, whilst the lowest team or teams get “relegated,” or placed in a league the following year with a lower level of competition — a real-world example of the Peter Principle.

The Wikipedia article linked to the previous paragraph says that this system, which we’ll call “Pro-Rel” in sports fan shorthand, is not part of the North American sporting culture.

But it has crept into some places in the United States, and it played a big part in a field hockey state championship this year — the championships of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.

You see, Providence Moses Brown School (R.I.) was a bit of a sad-sack team the last few years playing in Division I. But the team moved down this past year and won the Division II championship with a 3-0 win over Providence Wheeler School (R.I.). In Division I, Barrington (R.I.) swamped former Division II mainstay Tiverton (R.I.) 5-0.

Public school field hockey in Rhode Island is organized like many of the multi-flight private-school leagues such as the New England Prep School Athletic Conference and the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland. It does not assign its teams to upper and lower flights solely on competitiveness, geography, or school size.

Indeed, in the RIIL constitution, Article 1, Section 4-4-D says the following: “The Committee … shall be empowered to assign schools to those divisions/classes on whatever basis it sees fit.” That is, although large schools and small schools can be kept together, teams can opt to move up or down in divisional play.

Why am I harping on the subject of pro-rel this morning? Read Tom Boswell’s baseball column on the globalization of Major League Baseball. The last time there was a major influx of foreign talent into a North American sports league, the National Hockey League grew from 21 to 30 teams in 10 years thanks to waves of Eastern Europeans looking to seek their fortune here. The number of farm and independent teams increased tremendously in that period of time.

If there is a similar influx of talent from overseas as foreseen by Boswell, baseball’s major and minor leagues could find themselves bursting at the seams. Could the major leagues be forced into a bicameral system where the small-market teams like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota are relegated to a second division?

Don’t laugh. It’s already happened under our nose already in NASCAR. The Chase for the Nextel Cup is a variation on the pro-rel system where, after the first 26 races of the season, the top 10 race teams and their drivers are promoted to a select club who can race for a sizable purse at the end of the year. Everyone else is relegated in the points. Drivers not in the Chase can still win races, but cannot win the Nextel Cup or its multimillion-dollar payout at the end of the season.

The globalization of American sport has been occurring for a while, but 2007 is going to be a watershed year. NASCAR’s top division will have a foreign car make for the first time, Toyota. Advertisements will appear for the first time on the uniform fronts of major North American sports teams, as Major League Soccer has agreed to move logos from the back and sleeves to the front. Could promotion and relegation be next?

Nov. 20, 2006 — Field hockey as kiwi fruit

The kiwi fruit, a species of edible fruit from the Actinidia deliciosa vine, is sometimes called “The Ugly Duckling of Produce.”

A brown, fuzzy casing may keep the uninitiated away. But peel the skin off, and you will find brilliant and sweet green and yellow flesh.

That ugly brown cover is reminiscent of how the game of field hockey is packaged in the United States.

Take, for instance, the recently concluded NCAA Division I tournament. Friday night, the live ticker from the game site indicated that the final score, in regulation, was Wake Forest beating Duke 5-3. I was interested in one entry close to the end of the match, showing that Kristina Gagliardi had scored a goal for the Demon Deacons.

I found that extremely interesting, seeing that not only was Gagliardi a goalkeeper, but she had torn an ACL earlier in the season.

Only hours later did I ascertain that multiple missed entries in the display for live statistics led to the game being “over” when it had, in fact, gone into overtime with Wake winning 5-4.

You thought that was bad? The game broadcast Sunday on College Sports Television was even worse. Some of the same misstatements of fact from earlier in the season were repeated; specifically, that the sixth-place finish by the United States in the FIH Women’s World Cup was “our best ever,” forgetting that the Americans won bronze in Dublin in 1994.

But the ultimate error occurred in the middle of the half. A Maryland turnover led to a Wake shot that clearly flew wide of the cage on first glance, and the announce team wondered why the shot didn’t count as a goal through four replays over two minutes.

They didn’t even realize that the ball never entered the cage in the first place.

I know that several coaching bodies have sponsored college broadcasts over the years, with the AVCA ensuring a Sunday night broadcast of women’s and men’s volleyball on CSTV and the NSCAA cosponsoring a Friday soccer broadcast on Fox Soccer Channel.

It’s time that either USA Field Hockey or the National Field Hockey Coaches’ Association do the same thing. 

In the meantime,  I hope that if you taped this year’s championship match to watch it again, you’ll turn the sound down. You’ll be doing yourself a big, big favor.

Nov. 19, 2006 — It’s a young woman’s game

If there was one parallel between the four teams that contested the inaugural New Jersey Tournament of Champions, I found it interesting that none of the coaches in the tournament were over the age of 35, and none had reached the 200-win plateau coming into the 2006 season.

But that’s not because any of these four coaches are callow, wide-eyed, or lucky. Nope, all four have had the necessary experiences to drive their teams towards this first-in-the-nation playoff.

  • Ali Good was a player for Group I champion Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) when the team won New Jersey Independent Schools Athletic Association titles in the 1990s. In 1998, she took on the role of assistant coach before ascending to head coach for the 2005 season.
  • Like Good, Meredith Elwell coaches at her alma mater — only in her case, it’s at Group III champion Moorestown (N.J.). A former two-sport athlete for the Quakers and at the University of Virginia, Elwell is continuing the path set forth by legendary head coach Joan Lewis, who coached the team to more than 400 wins and 15 state championships.
  • Like Elwell, Danyle Heilig is a graduate of Moorestown, but coaches at Group IV titlist Voorhees Eastern (N.J.), which is about 12 miles away. Heilig’s willingness to teach her players international-caliber tactics and skills has paid off handsomely in eight years at Eastern following one season at nearby Haddon Heights.
  • Jill Cosse, head coach at Group II champ North Caldwell West Essex (N.J.), is actually the oldest of the four coaches, having graduated from Trenton State College in 1993. After a couple of seasons at Kean University, she took the West Essex job after the retirement of legendary Linda Alimi and won a state title her first year out in a thrilling 2-2 draw with Allentown (N.J.). She has also coached her lacrosse team to several New Jersey Group B (small-school) championships.

I found it very interesting the way these four coaches were able to not only get their teams to get past the “tipping point” of the group finals, but to get high-school students to focus on a particular task and work collectively towards a purpose, all the while bearing the burden of history. None of these four coaches had ever handled a team in this situation before, and it could not have been easy for any of them.

It makes me wonder what’s going to happen when the more experienced coaches like Nancy Williams, Trish LeFever, and Carole Schoen make it into the Tournament of Champions. Will they handle situations with the same grace and aplomb as the four coaches in the 2006 tourney?

Should be fun to see what happens next year.

Nov. 18, 2006 — Catching up with the Kulinas

Was in Allentown, Pa. for the Pennsylvania state championships, and around halftime of the Class AA title match, I ran into a phalanx of blue-and-white striped players and coaches from undefeated Hummelstown Lower Dauphin (Pa.).

One face in that crowd, however, showed instant recognition. It was Kiley Kulina Strohm, one of the best players in the Lower Dauphin program’s history. She attended Penn State and made the U.S. women’s national team pool in 2002, but did not earn a cap.

But the two of us had an on-field moment together on a hot summer afternoon in 1999. It was a four-nations tournament for the U-20 national teams from England, the United States, Chile, and India. I had been hoping to sit and enjoy the afternoon up at Kean University, but was asked to volunteer as a ballboy. I seized the chance to view the action from up close. Not only did I get to see our young American players, but got my first chance to see up close a young lady named Paula Infante, who would win the 2005 Honda Award for the best field hockey player in the NCAA.

After the AAA final which saw Lower Dauphin beat Flourtown Mount St. Joseph’s (Pa.) 2-1, I ran into Kiley’s younger sister Kellie Kulina, wearing the maroon and black of Lock Haven. A few years back, I had believed that she, Ashleigh Haas (University of Virginia), and Carey Fetting-Smith (University of North Carolina) had the vitality, game sense, flair, and strength to help change the game as we know it in the United States.

But that hasn’t happened. Haas made her name on the lacrosse field, winning the national title at Virginia. Fetting-Smith now works in New York, and Kellie Kulina now works one-on-one with young special education students in Dauphin County.

Which makes me wonder: if I were to pronounce here that Wyoming Seminary sophomore midfielder Kelsey Kolojejchick might find herself on the same fast track as Katelyn Falgowski or a Katie O’Donnell, would she fall under the equivalent of The Sports Illustrated Curse?

Nov. 17, 2006 — North of the border

As domestic competitions wrap up this weekend with state championships in five states, three sectional titles decided in California, and the first-in-the-nation Tournament of Champions in New Jersey, plus all three divisions in the NCAA, let’s not forget what else is happening on our continent.

Provincial titles are being decided in Canada, including the country’s most high-level championship, the competition to be the best scholastic team in British Columbia.

Think of this the next time a field hockey tournament game is postponed by rain. (New Jersey and Maine — listen up!) Last Wednesday in Burnaby, Chilliwack Senior High School lost to Mount Douglas High of Vancouver in conditions fit for neither woman nor beast. The saving grace: the artificial turf on which the tournament was played.

“It was wild. There were some trees coming down in the forest around us,” reports head Barb Kroeker to the hometown newspaper, The Chilliwack Progress. “The conditions made it very difficult to play very well. Mount Doug was the game we thought we could come away with a tie from. We had beat them earlier in the year. But with the driving rain and the wind, it was tough. But the weather doesn’t really affect these girls.”

Now, I’ve seen field hockey being played in less-than-ideal conditions. Once, the Mercer County Tournament semifinals were played on a grass field that was not engineered to drain well after a morning storm. I saw workers furiously shoveling snow in the state semifinals in New York at the onset of a blizzard.

And I saw numerous heroic efforts on the part of West Amwell South Hunterdon (N.J.), perhaps none moreso than a 1995 Group I Central game at Pingry. It was the only game played in the state that day, and the gutsy Eagles came away with an overtime victory in monsoon conditions.

And on grass, too.