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Archive for March, 2019

BULLETIN: March 30, 2019 — Great Britain 3, USA 1

The U.S. field hockey team honored the PIAA Class AA state champion Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.) field hockey team at halftime of this evening’s FIH Pro League fixture against defending Olympic champion Great Britain.

And the States even got a goal from the star player from that championship side, teen sensation Mackenzie Allessie.

But the ultimate result from the evening’s activities at Spooky Nook was a 3-1 loss, one which cements the US at the bottom of the nine-team Pro League, an enormous hole to dig out of if the States are to get to the semifinal round of the league. Right now, the United States is nine points out of fourth place in the standings, and the Americans’ next four matches are on the road, at Belgium, Holland, Great Britain, and Germany.

Now, the reason for needing to be in the top four in the FIH Pro League is that the four top sides go into the Olympic qualifiers for Tokyo 2020. The qualifiers are going to be seven two-legged ties featuring 14 teams that qualify through the Pro League (four) and Pro Series (six), plus the next-highest teams in FIH World Ranking (four, since Japan has qualified as host and as Asian champion).

This pool of teams do not count the five continental champions, so if the United States is able to win its third straight Pan American Games title in Lima this summer, the Americans do not have to go through a two-legged tie to get to Tokyo.

But if the States don’t qualify through that route, the American side would likely have to play against an opponent close to the lower end of the Top 10, such as India, China, or Japan in order to make the Olympic Games.

March 30, 2019 — The price of two leagues

For the last four years, there have been not one, but two professional women’s ice hockey leagues for post-collegiate and Olympic hopefuls to pursue their passion. One league played exclusively in the United States, and one in Canada.

This morning, one side blinked.

It was announced this morning that the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, a circuit which has roots going back to 1999, would be ceasing operations by the end of April.

These two leagues filled a genuine need, borne from the cross-border competition between the United States and Canada, which began with the inaugural IIHF World Championship for women in 1990, and peaked with the United States’ victory over Canada in the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

After the Nagano games, it was expected that a league might form somewhere to allow the Tara Mounseys and Sandra Whytes of the world to keep playing. That league was called the National Women’s Hockey League. Originall concentrated in Ontario, the league developed its own colorful history, borne of its threadbare existence.

The teams had some colorful names: Beatrice Aeros, Calgary Oval X-treme, and Montreal Wingstar. The league merged with the Western Women’s Hockey League and, at one time, had a nearly coast-to-coast footprint, save for Nova Scotia.

But this iteration of a Canadian league ceased operations after the 2007 season. By 2010, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was formed as a five-team league, one of which (Boston Blades) was American-based.

Five years later, a new National Women’s Hockey League was formed, with teams in Buffalo, Connecticut, Boston, and New York. Both leagues competed for post-collegiate talent, and, after some original resistance to salaried players, the CWHL started paying its players more. A couple of years ago, however, the new NWHL had to impose some financial austerity measures, including 50-percent salary cuts leaguewide.

Despite the lack of sponsorship opportunities and media interest, both leagues took risks when it came to new markets. The CWHL brought in the Shenzhen Red Star team to help China develop players for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and the NWHL brought in the Minnesota Whitecaps, a team which originally played with the Western Women’s Hockey League in Canada.

For me, the NWHL’s gambit came up trumps: the Whitecaps won the Isobel Cup this season. The team in China never contended for the CWHL title.

This makes me wonder what the look of the NWHL is going to be in the next few years. I know an unbalanced five-team league isn’t going to be the most sustainable model, and I think there is going to have to be a bi-national footprint.

I see a league with Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Detroit as well as the current five teams.

That leaves one slot, which could go to either Calgary, Vancouver, or a town like Brampton, Ontario, a place where women’s ice hockey is very much ingrained into the culture.

 

 

 

March 29, 2019 — Fortress Lancaster?

The United States women’s field hockey team came into this weekend needing confidence, goals, and some home cooking after playing its entire FIH Pro League schedule away from its training base at Spooky Nook.

The States played pretty well against a Belgium side which has been tipped as a possible rival to World Cup champion Holland and Olympic champion Great Britain. It, however, took nine rounds of the penalty shootout to win the game 5-4 after a 1-1 draw.

The win solidified the credentials of Danielle Grega as a bona fide scorer at the international level, as she leveled the match 10 minutes from time. But it is also possible that the “goalkeeper by committee” approach that head coach Janneke Schopmann has employed thus far may have yielded a frontrunner in Stanford’s Kelsey Bing.

The shootout win, however, means that the U.S. dropped a potential point in the World League standings, and are now next-to-last in the World League table with three points.

The only team behind them? Sunday night’s opponent, Team GB. Great Britain, your defending Olympic champs, are looking up from the bottom of the table, scoring a paltry three goals thus far in the Pro League.

So, tomorrow night’s game between the two sides is not just to escape the bottom of the standings, but also to gain a measure of momentum as the games come thick and fast over the next three months.

And three points Sunday, at home, are an absolute must in order to keep the U.S. in the hunt for one of the final four slots in the Pro League.

March 28, 2019 — Last of a kind?

TELESIDE, USA — During this evening’s lacrosse match between Northwestern and Penn State, there was talent out there on the pitch, then there was an orchestra conductor.

Selena Lasota is one of those rare players whose presence not only commands the ball, but also dictates what opponents have to do to stop her.

Of all the athletes I have watched in the world of sport, Lasota is amongst only a rare few who can seemingly control the opposition simply by being on the competition surface, reading plays two to three steps ahead of what they were going to do.

My list is short: Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jen Adams, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and Tony Hrkac, the former Hobey Baker Award winner from North Dakota.

Each of these players seemed to be able to what they do with ordinary effort, but Lasota is the only one with a leaping, athletic forehand shot that comes straight from box lacrosse.

Now, given the fact that there are defenses in basketball, hockey, football, and women’s lacrosse now geared towards stopping dominant offensive talents, I wonder if Lasota is going to be the last of a breed of dominant scorers who can take over a game in the last five minutes, leading to an era where your better scorers are likely to only get 40 goals per season, but the offense is spread around to all seven players in a given offensive set.

If so, there are only a few opportunities left to catch this truly special player with a Northwestern team in that “blanket” of teams chasing Boston College and Maryland for Final Four berths.

March 27, 2019 — The disruptor

TELESIDE, USA — Watching this evening’s women’s lacrosse game between Maryland and Princeton, there was one singular irresistible force on the pitch.

Her statline: four goals on 4-for-5 shooting, one assist, one steal, and 11 draw controls.

But what makes Kali Hartshorn the player she is — a recent addition to the Tewaaraton Trophy watchlist — are aspects of the game that aren’t counted in a box score. She hustled to back up errant shots, went after ground-ball pickups, and utterly disrupted anything that Princeton tried to get going after the Tigers fell behind early by five goals.

I’ve said before that Hartshorn is one of a long line of excellent draw-controllers that have stepped in the center circle for Maryland over the years, whether it has been Kelly Amonte-Hiller, Cathy Reese, Quinn Carney, Acacia Walker, Karri Ellen Johnson, Dana Dobbie, Taylor Cummings, or Zoe Stukenberg.

Hartshorn is very much their equal. It’s fun watching her play.

March 24, 2019 — The drama continues in Division I

Hey, all. Don’t blink or you will find yourself missing one of the most amazing and competitive seasons in the history of Division I women’s lacrosse.

In the last few days, you saw these scores:

Florida 11, Stony Brook 10
Virginia Tech 17, Louisville 16
Syracuse 10, Notre Dame 9

But in addition, you saw these:

Maryland 18, James Madison 5
Boston College 14, North Carolina 8

The pattern, I think, is changing — but only slightly. While I still think Boston College is the favorite to win the NCAA title and cut out the nets from the goals at Unitas Stadium, don’t count out Maryland, who would be playing its national semifinal and final matches just 46 miles from its campus in College Park.

As for most of the rest of the Top 10? Throw a blanket over them. It’s anyone’s guess which of these teams will survive and advance to the national semifinals in two months. Such is the level of competition this spring.

March 23, 2019 — A very preliminary farewell

This afternoon, in opening-round play in the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship, the Tennessee Lady Vols lost 89-77 to UCLA. It is the first time since 2009 that Tennessee has been knocked out in the first round of the tournament.

And it’s been a while since Tennessee was a No. 11 seed, to be sure.

This year is very much a sea-change year in women’s basketball. Connecticut is not a No. 1 seed. Rutgers is currently without head coach Vivian Stringer because of health issues. Other former champions such as North Carolina and Texas also did not make it past the first round.

What this has done is give a boost to some very hard-working programs at schools which have been previously known only for men’s basketball.

Take Indiana University. IU had a strong on-campus presence for decades through intramural and some extramural play through the 1960s, but only began varsity basketball in 1971. That year, the Hoosiers had a successful start to the season, but at the national tournament that season, were eliminated by a small Roman Catholic college from the Philadelphia area. Yep, the Immaculata Mighty Macs.

Another women’s team coming from a school whose basketball culture has been dominated by men is Gonzaga. Aha, bet you didn’t notice that the Spokane, Wash. school had a women’s team that could rival their men’s side, didn’t you? The Zags came into the tournament with a 28-4 record, which is almost as good as their men’s team, which has been ranked No. 1 for several weeks this season.

But I think a team that could open some eyes is UCLA. The Los Angeles school has been known for big men, Hall of Famers, and John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. Women’s basketball? The program has never made an NCAA FInal Four, although the 1978 team led by the legendary Ann Meyers won the national title sanctioned by the Association of Interscholastic Athletics for Women (AIAW).

I think all of these programs bear watching to see how their fan bases latch onto their success.

March 22, 2019 — A change in the sporting fabric in the Western Hemisphere?

Four days ago, the union representing men’s and women’s professional soccer teams was able to forge an agreement with the Argentina Football Association to begin a level of professionalism with the nation’s women’s soccer teams.

Argentina, for all of its excellence on the men’s side, has been little more than an afterthought on the women’s side. The Albicelestes have only played in two World Cups thus far, in 2003 and 2007. Argentina is winless in six matches, scoring two goals and conceding 33.

The inequality gulf between men’s and women’s soccer in Argentina was laid bare two years ago when the women’s national team called a players’ strike when their $10 stipend went unpaid.

But now, players in the Argentina first division will be guaranteed a minimum salary of 15,000 Argentine pesos per month.

Taken by itself, this is part of a trend in world soccer where nations like France, Mexico, Germany, Spain, and England have started to professionalize women’s club sides, and have even gotten clubs like Paris, Lyon, America, Arsenal, and Barcelona to sponsor women’s teams.

But I also wonder what is going to happen 10, 20 years down the line when young girls are provided choices of sports to play. How many of them will chase down salaries in women’s soccer and forego the largely amateur world of club field hockey?

Argentina, mind you, has been the dominant force in women’s field hockey in the Pan American Hockey Federation since the mid-1980s, even though the population of the country is about 1/7th of the United States.

I think this changes once Argentina’s women’s population generates its first Messi, not its latest Aymar.

 

March 21, 2019 — 50-49, such a long time ago

Thirty years ago this week, the order of men’s college basketball was nearly turned upside down when a group of smart young men from Princeton University, led by a madcap head coach with well-traveled ideas and tactics, nearly upset Georgetown University in the NCAA Division I Tournament.

It was a result which cemented phrases like “Field of 64,” “bracket buster,” and “mid-major” in basketball phraseology forever. Today, the Division I men’s basketball tournament is one of the largest annual sports-betting events on the calendar, even as the product has been steadily enervated with the advent of the “one and done” player, or even 18-year-olds choosing to play professionally overseas or in the NBA’s G-League.

How much has changed in three decades? Last night, an Ivy League team beat Georgetown in basketball. But this was Harvard, and the tournament was the NIT.

And the basketball world didn’t bat an eyelash.

March 20, 2019 — Selling its soul

Today, a press release came out detailing the possible rules changes for the game of lacrosse to be included in a future Olympic Games.

The new draft playing rules were developed by the Blue Skies Working Group, a consortium of people within the lacrosse community, one which includes Dana Dobbie, one of the finest draw-takers in the history of the women’s game.

As such, it’s curious to see that her specialty — the draw — is being marginalized in the new rules.

Under the Blue Skies rules, women’s draws and men’s faceoffs only occur to start off a period of play, whether in regulation or overtime.

And that’s just the beginning.

The pitch will be 70 by 36 meters, about the size of a Texas six-man football field. There are only 10 players on a roster, six players a side.

But what I think is a shame about the proposed Olympic rules is the fact that a shot that goes out of bounds goes to the team that didn’t touch it last, rather than it being awarded to the team that gets to the endline first. That’s a unique part about the game of lacrosse, one which symbolizes the endless roads and fields of the Northeast and Midwest where baggataway was played 500 years ago.

Instead, the Blue Skies group has bastardized the sport into a small space, following rugby (and quite possibly field hockey) into a Faustian bargain, selling the very essence of the sport in order to get into the Olympics.