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Dec. 13, 2016 — The State of Hockey, 2016

The 2016 field hockey season in the United States had a lot of first-time achievements, but also a number of repeating patterns. It was a year when scoring in U.S. high schools was spiraling towards towards unprecedented heights as defenses and goalkeepers were finding it more and more difficult to cope with the astounding talent coming out of the high-performance system and rules packages which are making it more and more difficult to play defense. That left a number of questions surrounding the balance of competition nationwide.

The most high-profile portion of the American field hockey calendar was the participation of the senior women’s national team at two high-profile competitions. The States won bronze at the 2016 Champions Trophy in London; it was their first medal at the Champions Trophy in two decades, and it was supposed to have been a big boost in confidence for the Rio Olympics.

But the States fell into their usual traits when it came to Olympic competition. Under fitness coach Dave Hamilton, the U.S. team pushed the barriers of the data-driven physical athlete by its use of real-time transponders under the uniform.

At the same time, they remained a streaky team. Indeed, the Olympic effort was two streaks: the four-game win streak to start the tournament, and the two-game losing streak at the end.

The four-game win streak included the first Olympic hat trick since 1984 when Katie Bam netted three against Japan. And that Japan game also featured what could have been the fastest goal the U.S. has ever scored when Melissa Gonzalez scored in 16 seconds.

Regrettably, it’s the back end that determined the Americans’ destiny. In the two games the team lost, the U.S. failed to hold onto a lead the last 20 minutes against eventual champions Team GB in the last pool match, losing the lead during a five-minute yellow card. The second game occurred in the quarterfinal round. There, the States conceded two goals in the first 20 minutes to Germany, whereupon the 2004 Olympic champions simply parked the bus.

After the Olympics, the U.S. structure started changing with alarming speed. Both men’s national team coach Chris Clements and women’s national team coach Craig Parnham resigned. So did Hamilton and several front-office personnel within USA Field Hockey. In addition, captain Lauren Crandall and veteran back Rachel Dawson retired.

The road to 2018 and beyond, however, will have an enormous home-pitch flavor. Spooky Nook will be hosting the 2017 Pan American Cup, the primary qualification route for the next FIH World Cup. Also, the U.S., as sixth-ranked in the world, is a likely candidate to participate in the planned FIH “home-and-away” league which sees the top teams in the world play each other at home sites, rather than have a number of teams go to one site for a two-week tournament.

While all this was going on, the planning for the next group of women likely to be wearing American colors was taking place. The United States U-21 national team, a collection of collegians augmented by three scholastic players, competed at the Junior World Cup in Chile.

Their preparation, however, was hampered by the fact that there was a U.S. domestic season that would preclude the team from getting together until the day before leaving for Chile. That led to an unprecedented decision for Erin Matson, the fine junior who had a pair of amazing seasons with Kennett Square Unionville (Pa.). She decided to not play varsity hockey and trained full-time for the World Cup. It was a decision which came up trumps for the U.S. side, as she led the Applebees with five goals.

The rest of the team members played for their respective college and high-school teams. Indeed, of the 18 players on the roster, half were involved in tournament play the week before the departure of the team for the Junior World Cup, meaning that the entire squad had about five days of preparation together before the opening whistle.

The U.S. finished second in a difficult pool featuring the nations who won for the last four Junior World Cups, then had an unlucky quarterfinal against Argentina. The U.S. eventually finished eighth in the tournament.

The U.S. scholastic season saw a number of new powerhouses coming to the fore; Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.), Chesapeake Great Bridge (Va.), Westport Staples (Conn.), Delmar (Del.), and Charlotte Myers Park (N.C.) were amongst the teams winning their first state championships in 2016.

Teams are figuring out ways to catch up to established powerhouses, and this includes the best team in the U.S. over the last two decades, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.). After an era which saw the Vikings score more than 200 goals in five straight seasons, and have one 60-goal scorer on the roster, it was a bit much to expect this year’s version to maintain that awesome level of play.

Though Eastern was able to win 23 games and a state championship, there were a couple of stumbles along the way. Two of the stumbles occurred the weekend of Oct. 1 when the Vikings dropped games on consecutive days to Louisville Sacred Heart (Ky.) and Kingston Wyoming Seminary (Pa.), which may have been the longest losing streak for the team in some 20 years.

The Vikings still played excellent and smart hockey, as was evidenced by an early-season 6-2 win over Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.). Eastern would win the NJSIAA Group IV championship, entering the Tournament of Champions as a three seed, then dispatched Ocean City (N.J.) 5-1 in the semifinal round. In the other semi, a very balanced North Caldwell West Essex (N.J.) side sent off Pennsauken Bishop Eustace (N.J.), a team which had a significant interstate win over Newtown Square Episcopal Academy (Pa.) during the regular season.

In the Tournament of Champions final, Eastern and West Essex battled to a 1-1 draw in regulation, then went into overtime before an Eastern trip inside the circle led to a penalty corner in the 69th minute. A foul on that corner led to a West Essex penalty stroke, which Lia Sinisi converted to win the Tournament of Champions final.

Despite that, Eastern won its 18th consecutive NJSIAA Group IV state tournament. It was one of a number of championship streaks that were extended in 2016. Shrub Oak Lakeland (N.Y.) and Watertown (Mass.) won their eighth straight state championships. Emmaus (Pa.) won its 28th straight District 11 championship, Greenwich (Conn.) Academy won its 33rd straight Fairchester Athletic Association Tournament, and West Long Branch Shore Regional (N.J.) won its 46th straight Shore Conference divisional title, winning the”B” Central division.

But more important for the game nationwide, a boomlet of spectacular field hockey players in the scholastic ranks continued to break records. Most prominent of these was senior Meredith Sholder of Emmaus (Pa.). She became only the fourth member of the 100-goal, 100-assist club during the 2016 season, following on the achievements of Chantae Miller, Alyssa Parker, and Haley Schleicher.

Sholder, with a 58-goal, 44-assist season, wound up second all-time in career goals with 217, and tied for second all-time in career assists with 135. She also powered the Emmaus Hornets to a second straight PIAA Class AAA state championship with an emphatic 5-1 win over Palmyra (Pa.) in a rematch of last year’s state title game.

Mackenzie Allessie of Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.) had 76 goals on the season, and could have had a few more in the state championship game, but deferred to her senior teammates when several penalty strokes were issued in the second half of the Class AA final, which was a 6-2 win over Merion (Pa.) Mercy.

Throughout the season, Allessie showed a penchant for coming though in the clutch. In the final of the Lancaster-Lebanon League against Millersville Penn Manor (Pa.), Allessie pumped in a dipping shot less than 10 minutes from time to give the Indians the win. In the state tournament semifinal round, Allessie had a goal in the final minute of regulation to tie the game against Malvern Villa Maria (Pa.), then scored an identical corner goal in overtime.

But Allessie wasn’t the leading goal-scorer in the United States. That honor went to Megan Rodgers, the center forward for San Diego Serra (Calif.). The Conquistadors went 27-0 on the season, in a season including league opposition, intersectional games against teams from the Bay Area, and the Serra Invitational, which requires a team to play three games on consecutive Saturdays.

Rodgers, Allessie, and Sholder led an attack on the scoring charts during the 2016 season. Ten players had 50 goals or more, which is almost certain to be an all-time record. Serra, with 227 goals, broke into the top five all time for team scoring.

Other young and promising players made themselves known this year. Indeed, to go along with Allessie, four other underclasswomen breached the 50-goal barrier. Freshman Kara Heck had 55 goals for Eastern, one of the three best ninth-grade seasons in history. Sammy Popper, the sophomore from Fort Washington Germantown Academy (Pa.), set an all-time record for the five-county Philadelphia area with 56 in one season. Sophomore Emma DeBerdine of Millersville Penn Manor (Pa.) and junior Peyton Tollaksen of Chesapeake Great Bridge (Va.) scored exactly 50 this season.

Pennsylvania’s scoring phenoms combined with an expanded Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association tournament to create a situation where newer teams to the postseason wound up meeting teams with tournament experience and high-performance players. The result was that nine PIAA tournament games finished under the “mercy rule” where the clock keeps running when the margin reaches five goals. Moreover, an astounding 21 goals were scored in the three PIAA championship finals.

Pennsylvania was not the only place in the U.S. that expanded its playoffs in 2016. The Virginia High School League went from three to four divisions because of an infusion of 14 teams in Loudoun County in the northern half of the state.

The VHSL’s four-division system yielded 12 runaway games in the regional and state rounds, but also some very close competition in all four state finals. Indeed, perhaps the best game of the lot was when Chesapeake Great Bridge (Va.) and Yorktown Grafton (Va.) had to go to a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in the 4A final. In the tiebreaker, Great Bridge scored a goal in the 11th round of shootout to take a 5-4 win.

A number of all-time records were extended in 2016. While Watertown (Mass.) was winning another MIAA Division 2 title, they extended their all-time unbeaten streak to 183 games, and their all-time win streak to 123. Susan Butz-Stavin extended her record for coaching victories at Emmaus to 893.

Eventually, a lot of this excellence is going to flow into the American collegiate system. But as the 2016 season unfolded, questions were raised about the dominance of foreign talent on Division I and some Division II and III rosters. The nation’s leading goal-scorers for 2016 in Division I were Greta Nauck of Delaware (33, Germany), Charlotte Veitner of Connecticut (27, Germany), and Anna Willocks of St. Joseph’s (25, New Zealand). The top American was Lauren Moyer of the University of North Carolina with 24. The national assist leader was American Moira Putsch of Penn State, who had 20.

Nauck, Veitner, and Moyer were important players for their respective teams during their runs to the NCAA Final Four. For Delaware, especially, the run to the final was unexpected. When the Blue Hens made the title match, it was their first time playing in a national final since the days of the AIAW. However, this well-trained team, coached by Rolf van de Kerkhof, played confident and opportunistic hockey in a 3-2 victory.

Elsewhere in the NCAA, Messiah College, a eight-time finalist in Division III without a championship, finally made its ninth trip count against Tufts. But not without two overtime periods and a snowplow. No, seriously; a snowplow.

The Division III final was played under lake-effect snow conditions in Geneva, N.Y., and a tractor had to be brought out to brush out the turf for the penalty shootout tiebreaker. In the tiebreaker, Messiah scored on its first two shootout attempts while Tufts missed their first two. But, as things happen when it comes to Messiah field hockey, they didn’t make it easy on themselves. It took until the final round, when Falcons goalie Shelby Landes knocked away the last Jumbos attempt.

Landes was also in goal when Messiah met Shippensburg to start the 2016 season, with the Falcons losing 1-0. Shippensburg, a Division II school, would go on to defeat LIU-Post 2-1 in the championship final, which would wind up being the final game for head coach Bertie Landes. Ship had dedicated its season to alumna and former assistant coach Amanda Strous, who was found murdered in June.

In the collegiate club ranks, Penn State won the National Field Hockey League and Colgate won the New York State Club Field Hockey League.

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