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June 8, 2021 — The State of Hockey, 2020-21

There’s a word that has defined life in the American field hockey community in the last year.

That word is “uncertainty.”

Whether you were on a U.S. college team, a rec team, a high-school team, or the U.S. national team, the Coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every level of competition.

Perhaps the biggest two effects were the movement of the NCAA Division I tournament to the spring and the cancellation of the USA Field Hockey National Festival. The Festival, one of the largest field hockey tournaments in the world, was originally supposed to have been held in North Carolina, then the competition was split between North Carolina and Virginia before being cancelled days before its scheduled start.

There were other kinds of COVID-related effects, large and small, on the American field hockey community. Schedules were shortened, mostly through the cancellation of interconference games. But some competitions were shortened by altering the state tournament or eliminating it altogether.

One such state was New Jersey, which turned its usual five-bracket state tournament into more than 20 sectional championships. The lack of a Tournament of Champions prevented Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) from winning a 22nd straight state championship, but the Vikings were able to win the Central-East “A” sectional bracket.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association eliminated at-large bids, allowing only District champions to make the state tournament for the first time since the 1970s. This led to some interesting games in the District final, none of which were more gripping than the District 3-AAA title match between Hummeltown Lower Dauphin (Pa.) and Harrisburg Central Dauphin (Pa.). The winning play saw the nation’s leading goal-scorer, Hope Rose, make a 60-yard run, beating three midfielders for pace before rapping a shot from a 45-degree angle on the right wing.

The Virginia High School League only invited regional champions (except for Class 3) to the state tournament, which ramped up the pressure on regional final participants. It used to be that teams making the final of a regional tournament were guaranteed entry into the state tournament, putting the pressure point on the regional semifinal games.

But for the Class 5 Region A East bracket, the real pressure point was in the quarterfinal round, where, because of travel considerations, defending state champion Virginia Beach Frank W. Cox (Va.) was matched up against its Mill Dam Creek rivals, Virginia Beach First Colonial (Va.). Cox’s 1-0 win over FC represented the eighth time in the last nine seasons when one team ended the other’s season.

In the schools, there were a number of record performances in 2021. Aside from Hope Rose’s 90-goal season, Ryleigh Heck of Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) knocked in 76. In the spring season, Cami Crook, the fine attacking center midfielder for Somerset-Berkeley Regional (Mass.), became the third-leading assister of all time with 149.

The FIH Pro League, of which the U.S. women’s national team is a part, was devastated because of the different travel regulations of the teams participating in it. The U.S. has played only nine games in the Pro League thus far, and find themselves at the bottom of the table with China (which has played only two).

The United States’ results, especially recently, have been less than encouraging. But that is understandable, given the uncertainty of the last year. The U.S. women, after putting their grievances to an on-line petition in late 2019, left Spooky Nook as their training ground.

Indeed, in the last year and a half, the American women have had four home grounds: Spooky Nook, Karen Shelton Stadium, The Proving Grounds, and a forthcoming move to Queens University in Charlotte. Too, the women’s side has had three head coaches in that time span: Janneke Schopmann, Caroline Nelson-Nichols, and current head coach Anthony Farry. All of this turnover has coincided with an enormous turnover on the U.S. elite roster. In a quartet of Pro League games in May 2021, this lack of experience showed, as the team was outscored 19-2 by Belgium and Team GB.

A lot of the potential experience that was not on the pitch, as it turned out, were on the rosters of U.S. college teams, which were finishing their seasons a scant week before Pro League play resumed.

Though COVID-19 completely erased competition in NCAA Division II and III, the Division I teams put on a splendid show over the course of their respective conference tournaments and national tournament.

Coming out ahead was a stacked North Carolina team, which had Team USA’s Erin Matson on it. Matson, a splendid forward, scored the overtime game-winner in the Division I final against a good Michigan team, the last of her 29 goals on the season.

But what I find interesting about the 2021 spring season was that there seemed to be a shift in power in field hockey. More teams from the Big Ten Conference (three) made the Division I tournament than from the Atlantic Coast Conference (two).

The college field hockey season may have ended in early May, but a development within the sport may have a larger impact going forward. That is the reversal of Stanford University’s announcement to cut the field hockey program and about a dozen others.

Stanford was one of a number of schools which reversed course on cutting sports in their athletic department, including prestigious universities like William & Mary and Brown.

To me, the original decision to cut the sports was a cynical move done with the global pandemic as a pretense, especially given the billions of dollars that these universities hold in reserve. Their move to gut their athletics programs created a healthy dose of uncertainty not only amongst players and coaches, but it created uncertainty on other campuses. Stanford’s original decision to cut field hockey would have decimated competition on the West Coast; the America East Conference has already decided to only go with the teams in its eastern division– Monmouth, Maine, Lowell, Albany, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

Whether or not Stanford, Cal-Berkeley, and Cal-Davis will be able to latch onto another conference remains uncertain.

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