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Archive for January, 2021

Jan. 31, 2021 — Only five teams headed for the finish line

The last week or so, the six teams in the National Women’s Hockey League have been playing in Lake Placid, N.Y. to contest for the Isobel Cup, emblematic of the champions of women’s professional ice hockey.

But after three rounds of play in the virtual bubble at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y., those six teams became five. That’s because the Metropolitan Riveters, one of the NWHL’s charter franchises from the league’s relaunch in 2015, had a number of team personnel test positive for Coronavirus.

The situation is eerily reminiscent of what happened last summer to the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League when they were obligated to terminate its participation in the league’s bubble in Utah after almost a dozen players and staff contracted COVID-19 after a trip to a local nightclub. The Pride did come back to participate in the Community Cup tournament in September.

I have noticed the degree to which players and teams involving women have been given extremely harsh penalties for COVID-19 positive tests, in comparison to their male counterparts. You’ve seen that the entirety of seasons for the Metropolitan Riveters, Orlando Pride, and the women’s basketball teams from Duke and Virginia have seen either their seasons or major competitions completely cut off because of Coronavirus positive tests.

Aside from Nashville S.C. of Major League Soccer, men’s teams in equivalent athletic competitions haven’t had the same severity of sanction. Indeed, men’s athletic leagues seem to be willing to bend over backwards to reschedule — even multiple games as was the case for the a St. Louis Cardinals team that went more than a fortnight without playing a game — rather than terminating seasons.

The inequality, frankly, is grating.

Jan. 30, 2021 — MIAA painting itself into a corner?

A couple of days ago, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association gave the go-ahead for its version of the “Fall 2” season which is slated to start in three weeks.

The Fall 2 rules for field hockey for this eight-week period are the same as before. The games are 7-on-7, bullies are removed in favor of alternate possession, and faces masks and goggles are still required.

There appears, however, to have been a major change in the MIAA modified rules, and this has to do with the execution of penalty corners. In the fall, a deliberate foul inside the attack zone or a defensive rules violation in the circle would result in a long hit from the 23-meter line.

But in the MIAA Fall 2 season, the penalty corner returns, and is executed like it is in reduced-side overtime, with the defense only allowed three outfielders and a goalkeeper.

I can’t help thinking that this rule change could benefit sides which did not play in the fall, such as two-time Division I state champion Somerset-Berkley (Mass.). The Raiders have made their name and reputation in recent years on penalty corners, and I can’t help thinking that can only help create more open space for players like senior Cami Crook, who comes into her senior year with 132 assists, one of the greatest totals in National Federation history.

Granted, her brother Lucas is no longer in the side, having graduated. But if S-B is able to find a corner striker of sufficient velocity and execution, watch out.

Jan. 29, 2021 — One shot

As the schedules for the spring NCAA Division I field hockey schedule have been leeching out like a slow flow from a melting snowman, I have been noticing a trend.

It’s a trend which, frankly, is going to upset the notion of how a champion is chosen. And I think it will make the process a lot more difficult. Thus far, most schedules that I have seen have shown exactly one non-conference opponent per team.

Yeah, you’re going to see some instances of conference teams scheduling a non-conference game against a team it is already playing (like you saw in the ACC last fall), but the low number of non-conference opponents is giving teams only one opportunity to add to its resume for the NCAA Tournament Committee.

You see, it is the committee which determines the identities of the two at-large teams that are not able to make it into the bracket without winning its conference’s automatic qualifying (AQ) bid.

For most of the last 25 years, building an NCAA Tournament resume simply meant crafting your non-conference schedule with quality opposition.

The University of Maryland, for example, made it a habit of playing Beth Anders’ Old Dominion teams not once, but twice. That is something you never see in any other sport today when it comes to non-conference opposition.

And regrettably, with the shortened season, travel restrictions, and COVID protocols, you’re not going to see this spring.

Sometime soon, we’ll have an idea of not only the out-of-conference matches on offer this spring, but how they might affect the selection process.

Somehow, I get the feeling that a mid-major team outside the ACC or the Big Ten may get to go to the dance if it can win against an elite side, even if it loses its conference championship.

Jan. 28, 2021 — And so, it begins

With a smattering of games in North Carolina this week, the U.S. scholastic girls’ lacrosse season has begun. Among the games played on Monday, Hickory St. Stephen’s (N.C.) started off strong with a 17-4 win over Asheville T.C. Roberson (N.C.).

The state of North Carolina is in an interesting place when it comes to its lacrosse culture. There were not very many scholastic teams in the state when this site started in 1998. Today, there are nearly 120 programs, more than 80 percent of them from public schools.

Too, the state is home to the UNC women’s lacrosse team, a side which is the consensus preseason No. 1 team in NCAA Division I. The team is coming off a pandemic-shortened season, and the logjam involving fifth-year eligible players and incoming recruits has created what could be the most talented NCAA women’s lacrosse team since the last two years of the Jen Adams Era at the University of Maryland.

It’s high times in the Tar Heel State; let’s see what happens this spring.

Jan. 27, 2021 — A major twist in the tale for the nation’s best collegiate field hockey conference

Remember back in November, when North Carolina beat Louisville in the ACC Tournament final at Karen Shelton Stadium? At the time, I said that the game was for the conference’s Automatic Qualifier slot for the NCAA Division I field hockey tournament.

I have had a couple of questions in my mind for the last three months. One, how would UNC, being the defending national champion, be able to keep up its intensity over its spring season? Two, would teams like Syracuse, Virginia, and Boston College be given a fair chance to make the tournament given schedule the degree to which their schedules were affected by COVID-19?

Well, leave it to the ACC to come up with an interesting solution. Read this paragraph from Duke University’s news release about its spring hockey season:

To determine the ACC automatic qualifier for the NCAA Tournament, [a] playoff game is set for Friday, April 23 at Karen Shelton Stadium. The team with the best spring conference record will play North Carolina. 

If I had a Tik Tok video outlet, it would feature dramatic music and a surprised expression on my face. The same may go for what is happening in team rooms in ACC schools when this playoff was explained.

For this is an astonishing development, and it is very much a lifeline for teams which may have had little to show for the fall season through bad fortune.

Now, the first-half/second-half mechanism isn’t unprecedented in sport. Some minor-league baseball leagues determine a title-winner by crowning a first-half champion and a second-half champion. The first-half champion, UNC, was only determined through the ACC Tournament. The second-half champion is going to be determined by conference record, meaning that the two teams in that April 23rd playoff game will be coming to the game through different qualification formats.

This is going to be very interesting.

Jan. 26, 2021 — Lil Shelton, 1930-2021

Lil Shelton, who died Sunday, was a walking contradiction as head field hockey coach at Severna Park (Md.).

She charmed people with a sweet Southern drawl, but did not suffer fools gladly in interviews. She kept up traditions such as a team photo in front of a wooden fence on campus, even as the uniforms changed from plaid kilts and white sweaters to dark blue and gold kits that cut a mean streak on artificial turf.

For portions of five decades, the Severna Park Falcons were an unerring beacon of excellence in Maryland, starting traditions and mechanisms that other areas and school districts took years to adopt. One was a youth league in which varsity players not only coached, but umpired.

When I spoke with Coach Shelton in her office in 2001, she had just retired from teaching in the district. It was an act that would normally spell the end of her coaching career, as many school districts across the country do not allow non-teachers to be coaches.

Shelton, however, would continue coaching for another 11 seasons, eventually amassing 544 victories. It is a total, however, which could, and should have been much higher.

The reason is that the state of Maryland, in its infinite wisdom, limits the number of field hockey games in a given season to 12, plus an optional two-game tournament. In other words, if Lil Shelton has been the head coach in any neighboring state (Delaware, Virginia, or Pennsylvania), she could have had 700 or more victories.

It is a situation which can be remedied if the Maryland state legislature is able to pass legislation to change the rules as to how many games a team can play, since the legislature sets the rules for the Maryland Department of Education, and, by extension, the Maryland Public High Schools Athletic Association.

Your Founder has drafted the framework for a bill to adjust the rules for scholastic sports schedule, though we haven’t yet crafted the language.

The time is right for a change; the Maryland senate has new leadership for the first time in several decades, and the death of Coach Shelton should propel people within the state of Maryland into full action.

It is action that is, frankly, long overdue.

Jan. 25, 2021 — Suffolk County’s high-stakes “permission slip”

Back in 1976, our fifth-grade language-arts class was supposed to be taking a class trip to a roller-skating rink. Somehow, I managed to weasel my way into the trip; my parents didn’t want me to go because I had not been properly trained as how to skate.

As a result of my attendance at the class trip, I tore a favorite pair of pants.

It wasn’t until after this incident when I noticed a greater use by school administrators of permission slips that parents had to sign in order to allow, say, for a bus to transport a child from school to a museum and back.

I was thinking of this when I noticed that the state of New York opened up high-school sports, even in high-risk tiers, subject to local health departments.

One such area is Suffolk County, N.Y., the eastern half of Long Island. County executive Steve Bellone is opening up all sorts of athletic pursuits, including spring lacrosse, field hockey from the Fall 2 season, as well as football, and basketball, as announced in a wide-ranging news conference today.

A part of the bargain, however, is this form. It is called the “Champion of the Community Pledge,” but it is a high-risk permission slip, where parents and students are giving schools and school administration permission to put minor children in harm’s way.

To me, this pledge is a horrendous idea; it’s bizarre, it’s frightening, and something out of a dystopian plot from a science fiction book.

You see, the Coronavirus is still ravaging the United States, and New York in particular, to an astounding degree. Long Island (both Suffolk and Nassau County) are second only to New York City in terms of the number of people currently in the hospital with COVID-19. The percentage of COVID patients as a function of the region’s population is tied with the Finger Lakes Region for the highest percentage in the Empire State.

Should parents have to sign away a child’s right to life in order to allow him or her to play a sport? I don’t think so. It’s outrageous.

Jan. 24, 2021 — One of the major Fall 2 field hockey competitions is losing its postseason

As far as this site has been able to tell, there are going to be six states or commonwealths in the United States where a postponed field hockey season from the fall is going to be contested this spring.

One of the more prominent competitions is the San Diego Section of the California Interscholastic Federation. The CIF has had brilliant field hockey for most of the last quarter-century, with players and teams which have rivaled the very best the nation has had to offer.

The San Diego Section, especially, has had hockey of great quality, to the point where the section divided its postseason into three tournaments. One, the Open tournament, which has league champions and the best of the rest of sectional teams. The others, Division II and Division I, are split by the size of school.

That all goes out the window this winter, unfortunately. An announcement on Friday by the San Diego Section has ended the postseason, mandating that field hockey’s regular season needs to be finished by March 20, 2021.

The problem: the season isn’t even close to getting started. Though teams are now allowed to start practice, they cannot start play until San Diego County shows fewer than seven new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. Since San Diego County has some 3.3 million residents, that’s roughly 231 per day. Regrettably, the number of cases reported just last Thursday was 2,847 with a record 79 deaths.

With a new strain of COVID-19 starting to infiltrate the U.S. population, it doesn’t look good for a restart for field hockey in California.

Jan. 23, 2021 — Will there be an Olympics this summer?

The first story appeared around the dinner hour on Thursday.

The Times of London wrote that the Japanese government had “privately concluded” that there would be no path to be able to host the postponed Olympics this summer, owing to the worldwide uptick in the Coronavirus. The story also went on to say that the government of Japan would try to rebid for the Summer Olympics in 2032.

Denials flew in a few hours later, including a strong one from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

I can’t see not holding a Tokyo Olympics very soon. After all, athletes from more than 200 countries in individual and team sports have spent untold time and effort to qualify. But I think any Tokyo games will unfold in a way that folks may not have envisioned them.

There are, I believe, two paths towards the Tokyo Olympics. One is to hold the event without fans, in a very large “bubble.” Japan, especially, Tokyo, would be ideal for such a bubble because not only is Japan a very clean country, but masks have been very much a part of everyday life for years. You will see people wearing masks not necessarily because they don’t want to get a particular germ or bug, but to prevent other people from getting a particular bug that they may already have.

Japan does not have a government-mandated sick leave policy, instead allowing a kind of fungible all-encompassing personal leave to take care of serious illness, personal business, or to have a vacation. This has led to generations of workers in Japan going to work even when sick. Hence, the adoption of surgical masks by many average people in the country.

If a Tokyo bubble is not the solution, I think there is no reason that there cannot be a Tokyo Olympics in 2022. Yes, it’s one more year of training and preparation for the athletes, but Tokyo has already built an entire Olympic infrastructure, and I cannot see the Japanese government abandoning several purpose-built sports facilities, from a swim stadium to a field hockey arena to the specialized course needed to compete in whitewater kayaking, only to pick it back up 11 years from now.

Furthermore, the Olympic family should have no problem with transitioning from the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to be held in Beijing, then move over to Japan for the Summer Olympics. It is, frankly, the schedule that the Olympic Games originally had from 1924 until 1992, with a Summer and a Winter Olympics in the same calendar year.

Indeed, there shouldn’t be a scheduling conflicting with a third world-level event, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The tournament is scheduled to take place in November and December.

Looks like there could be a very, very busy year in the world of competitive sports. That is, if people would only mask up and flatten the curve.

Jan. 22, 2021 — A second dress rehearsal for the current world champions

This evening, the U.S. women’s national soccer team plays only its second game since March 11, 2020, when the States beat Japan 3-1 to clinch the championship of the She Believes Cup.

The team is one which has been heavy on veteran presences like Carli Lloyd, Kelley O’Hara, Megan Rapinoe, and newly-named captain Becky Sauerbrunn. The team, as currently assembled, also has new faces like Sam and Kristie Mewis, Midge Purce, and Catarina Macario.

But there is a significant group of veteran players who are currently plying their trade overseas. This includes Tobin Heath, Christen Press, and Alex Morgan, all of whom are likely to make the U.S. team for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

The problem for head coach Vlatko Andonovski and his staff is that only 18 players are allowed on the Olympic roster. Somewhere along the line, hard cuts are going to have to be made, especially given the fact that there are only two days’ rest between games rather than the usual four or five in a FIFA World Cup.

As we have seen in the history of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, coaches have tended to rely on veteran players, sometime to the detriment of the overall team performance. A lot has been made of Greg Ryan’s reliance on goalkeeper Briana Scurry in a World Cup semifinal loss to Brazil in 2007, and April Heinrichs keeping Shannon MacMillan after coming back from pregancy, and keeping back Danielle Slaton who was coming back from a knee injury. This meant that, when Brandi Chastain broke her foot in the tournament opener, the team was, effectively, down to 17 players. In addition, there have been times when the U.S. program has relied on exceedingly young players. Pia Sundhage brought in Mallory Pugh for the 2016 Olympics, even though she was still in high school.

What I see in the current American camp roster — as well as the absentees — are three different groups: the veterans, the newbies, and the midcareer players. Each group has talented players which can take over a game at any time. It is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to female soccer players.

The key, of course, is trying to get whichever 18 players get chosen to play at the highest level possible. This could mean that players who have served the U.S. team well in the past may find themselves on the outside looking in when the final roster is selected.

That is, if there is an Olympics. More on that tomorrow.