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Archive for December, 2021

Dec. 31, 2021 — 189 right, 124 wrong

Today, I finished my Trivial Pursuit CLASSIC Edition Year-In-A-Box calendar, a calendar full of questions about everything from Spam to surfing to Sam Houston. The questions in this calendar were a little easier in parts, and my yearlong score reflected that. I got 60 percent of answers correct.

It’s nothing compared to James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, or Amy Schneider, but it’s not half-bad for a sportswriter. And yes, I keep score.

Dec. 30, 2021 — The Third Law of Field Hockey, as applied to the NWSL

Sometime in early 2022, the 10th season of the National Women’s Soccer League will commence.

But from now until then, there is untold amounts of behind-the-scenes negotiation and drama involving owners, coaches, players, and fans.

In Portland, there is an all-out boycott targeting Gavin Wilkinson, who is currently the general manager of the MLS’ Portland Timbers. In early October, he was put on administrative leave from his job with the Portland Thorns when he was implicated in the possible coverup of allegations made by two players regarding abuse by the team’s former head coach, Paul Riley.

In North Carolina, there is an all-out social media outcry after the team brought back defender Jaelene Daniels from retirement. Daniels, back in 2017, refused a callup to the U.S. women’s national team during Pride Month. She has also made anti-LGBTQQIA statements as early as 2015. Eight days ago the Carolina Courage came out and apologized for the signing.

And in the nation’s capital, the league champion Washington Spirit has been in the midst of an on-again, off-again effort to get majority owner Steve Baldwin to sell his share of the team. Baldwin has been implicated for his role in the hiring and the subsequent abuses by former head coach Richie Burke.

In all three of these situations, there is significant public pressure being put on team owners and sponsors by supporters of the team.

Now, if you’ve read this site enough, you’ll know that the TopOfTheCircle.com Third Law of Field Hockey is thus:

Players play. Coaches coach. Officials officiate. Spectators spectate. Administrators administer. Any time someone takes a role outside of their expertise, it constitutes an imbalance in the entire order of the sport.

The problem, in these three NWSL situations, is that you now have fans of the team acting an awful lot like team owners. It’s something which, I think, had its roots in England with the May 2 protest in Manchester against the Manchester United football club’s role in the formation of the European Super League, a midweek competition which would have had only 12 of the world’s richest clubs playing against each other.

After the May protests, which resulted in a prominent game having to be abandoned for the first time in Premier League history, the plans for the league have been pretty much rendered to the dust-bin of history.

Thing is, what the NWSL supporters need to realize is that, regrettably, it is up to ownership groups, however flawed, to try to win soccer matches. It isn’t fans who run practices, sign players, and try to get teams ready for weekly matches; it’s coaches and general managers.

The sooner all parties realize this, the sooner we can get towards a 10th-anniversary season.

Dec. 29, 2021 — To grow a game

Pam Stuper has done a lot in her field hockey existence. As a player, coach, administrator, and even as a charity fundraiser, everything she has done has made an impact.

As a player, she helped the U.S. win bronze at the 1994 FIH Women’s World Cup. She won three national championships at Old Dominion and was an assistant coach for James Madison’s 1995 title-winning team. For the last 17 years, she has not only coached Yale University’s varsity with distinction, but she found time to coach at several levels within the U.S. developmental system.

Stuper has recently announced her resignation from Yale to take a position with the USA Field Hockey Foundation as its executive director. The Foundation looks to develop the sport through investment in players, coaches, and umpires. It has, in the past, looked to grow the game through various initiatives which have had uneven levels of success over the years.

Hopefully, with Stuper’s leadership, the growth of the sport can be accelerated in ways that have not yet been attempted.

Dec. 28, 2021 — United States Coach of the Year: Ruth Beaton, West Newbury Pentucket (Mass.)

Ruth Beaton has two main mantras, for both coaching and for life: “Control the controllables,” and “Adjust, and do your job.”

Over the last two years of her head coaching career at West Newbury Pentucket (Mass.), she has been beset by more uncontrollables than most in her station. For most of the last two decades, her team has rented a turf field in a neighboring town, funded by the sale of cookie dough. But that arrangement ended when the recreational facility was sold and the turf turned into a construction site. Add to that the fact that a new Pentucket High School is set to open in 2022, and that the school mascot is undergoing a change.

Despite all of these distractions, the 2021 Pentucket field hockey team, with just 12 players on the varsity roster, won its first league title, had a 19-2-1 record, and fell just one goal short of making the state championship final. For her efforts, Beaton is the TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year for 2021.

Ruth Beaton took over the Pentucket program at an historical nadir. The field hockey program had undergone a number of lean seasons when Beaton applied to take on the job for the 1994 season. A local athletic director named Doug Wood had heard about this and contacted her.

“Ruth,” Wood said, “it will take you maybe seven years to make a difference.”

“Why?” Beaton asked.

“In seven years, that first class coming into middle school will be seniors, and the whole program will be yours,” Wood replied.

The first years for Beaton and Pentucket were as difficult as the years before she took the job. The team won only one game in her first four seasons on the job. At the time, the game of field hockey was making a number of radical changes. During that time period, the liberalization of the obstruction rule, free substitution, and the elimination of offside were written into the Rules of Hockey.

“While all of that was happening to the game,” Beaton said, “our objective was to just score a goal.”

Those lean years tilted her career won-loss record. Heading in the 2021 fall season, her record was 167-235-89. Beaton has stuck with coaching field hockey, even during times when it may have been extremely frustrating.

“I am a competitor and I am not a quitter,” Beaton says. “Sports is in my blood, and in my family, and competition is in my blood.”

Beaton’s father is legendary scholastic football coach Pat Flaherty, who coached for a quarter-century at Milton (Mass.) Academy. And, as it turns out, her sister is Darien (Conn.) coach Mo Minicus, who has won more than 400 games and eight Connecticut state titles. Minicus was also a nominee for United States Coach of the Year in 2010.

“I wanted to coach at the high school I went to, and try to make a difference,” Beaton says. “Once we became more competitive, then my neighbors, my friends’ kids, and my daughters would be playing on the team.”

A few years ago, there were more changes around Pentucket. First off, Cape Ann League powerhouse Boxford Masconomet (Mass.) moved to the Northeastern Conference. In addition, plans were announced to redo the postseason for the commonwealth’s public schools. Instead of having sectional brackets leading into two championships, the field hockey tournament would have statewide brackets leading into four championships.

But Beaton wasn’t thinking that far ahead. The global Coronavirus pandemic turned the 2020 season inside out. The Pentucket varsity played its fall 2020 season under the interim rules of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, playing 7-on-7 for the entire game with no penalty corners and masks required at all times. The team finished with a 5-5 record, but had no postseason to gauge how good they were out of the area.

“If you had asked me last year whether we’d have this kind of success,” Beaton says, “I’d have never seen this coming.”

This, especially, after the team learned that it would no longer have access to its home ground, an artificial grass field at the nearby Amesbury Sports Park. Because of the sale of that business, the team would be playing their 2021 home games at an elementary school, on a grass surface.

The Pentucket coaching staff adjusted, and controlled what they could control. They became expert field groomers, taking clumps of dead grass from the pitch, and adding speed-drying compound to the lawn whenever water would pond on the competition surface.

“This field was underwater at times, and I wondered whether we’d ever get to play another game sometimes after a rainstorm,” Beaton said.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the fifth game of the 2021 season when the team got that little bit of ambition which sent it hurtling towards potential greatness. The moment occurred during the team talk after the fifth game of the season, a 1-0 win over Georgetown (Mass.).

With the team huddled, Ruth Beaton’s daughter Shannon, the team’s volunteer assistant, piped up with a question.

“What are our goals?” she said. It was a pointed question.

“These girls have always striven to be the best,” Ruth Beaton said. “But they didn’t realize what they were capable of. We weren’t playing to our potential in that game, and we still won 1-0. Since then, we started building up steam.”

The following contest was a 4-3 win over Lawrence Central Catholic (Mass.), then the team kept on winning. Indeed, for the next six weeks, the Green-and-White gave up just two goals. A lot of this came from a strong midfield, led by leading scorer Lana Michelsen (18 goals), leading assister Haley Dwight (15 assists), and senior Meg Freiermuth, whose older brother Pat plays football for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As the season evolved, the team got noticed.

“When we got the third seed for the state tournament, I was giddy,” Beaton said. “And when we were ranked by the Boston Globe? That had never happened before.”

The team spun three straight clean sheets in the MIAA Division 3 Tournament, including a statement 4-0 win over Foxborough (Mass.). But that led to a showdown with Watertown, a long-time powerhouse and 18-time state champion that had given up a single goal all season.

In the contest, Watertown scored in the first four minutes, but the goalkeeping of senior Charlene Basque kept the Raiders off the scoreboard.

“We held them off for the rest of the game, and we only had 12 players on the roster,” Beaton says. “And six of our 11 starters did not play varsity last year.”

While Watertown would win the game and ultimately, the 2021 state championship, the achievements of the Pentucket field hockey team will live long in the memory for this group of players.

“I have coached an incredibly humble group of girls,” Beaton says. “Their confidence grew, and our postseason play was great. They hit their stride when it mattered most. This was for all the girls, and young men, who have played Pentucket field hockey over the years and fought, in spite of the won-loss record.”


Beaton joins a list of coaches in the past who have received the award from this site:

2021: Ruth Beaton, West Newbury Pentucket (Mass.)
2020-21: Carrie Holman, Vienna James Madison (Va.)
2019: Ali Good, Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.)
2018: Bri Price, Hershey (Pa.)
2017: Mary Werkheiser, Norfolk (Va.) Academy
2016: Jessica Rose Shellenberger, Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.)
2015: Danyle Heilig, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.)
2014: Eileen Donahue, Watertown (Mass.)
2013: Jim Larkin, Fredericksburg Chancellor (Va.)
2012: Ashly Fishell-Shaffer, Edgemere Sparrows Point (Md.)
2011: Lil Shelton, Severna Park (Md.)
2010: Sarah Catlin, Cincinnati St. Ursula (Ohio)
2009: Danyle Heilig, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.)
2008: Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, Pewaukee Trinity Academy (Wisc.)
2007: Wendy Reichenbach, Palmyra (Pa.)
2006: Barb Dwyer, Ladue Horton Watkins (Mo.)
2005: Robin Woodie, Fredericksburg Stafford (Va.)
2004: Monica Dennis, Grosse Pointe South (Mich.)
2003: Kearney Francis, Silver Spring Springbrook (Md.)
2002: Slade Gormus, Midlothian James River (Va.)
2001: Amanda Janney, Ft. Worth Trinity Valley (Tex.)
2000: Eileen Allan, Pompton Lakes (N.J.)
1999: Amy Wood, Bethesda-Chevy Chase (Md.)
1998: Diane Chapman, Garden City (N.J.) and Brenda Beckwith, Winslow (Maine)
1997: Maryellen Clemencich, Allentown (N.J.)
1996: Tracey Paul, Escondido San Pasqual (Calif.)
1995: Nancy Fowlkes, Virginia Beach Frank W. Cox)
1994: Mike Shern, Lacey (N.J.) Township
1993: Pat Toner, Newtown Council Rock (Pa.)

Dec. 27, 2021 — Desmond Tutu, 1931-2021

On Oct. 22, 2006, a black man wearing white and gold robes walked into one of the overflow rooms at my church and uttered the following:

Lwaye u!xolo lukaThi!xo, olugqithisele kuko konke ukuqonda, luya kuzigcina iintliziyo zenu neengqiqo zenu kuKristu Yesu.

The man was Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop of Cape Town and a worldwide activist for human rights and nonviolent protest. He died over the weekend at the age of 90, having dedicated his life and ministry to lifting up the poor, disadvantaged, and downtrodden.

The service was part of a commemoration of the Episcopal Church’s admittance of women to the priesthood. It attracted such a following that the cathedral opened overflow space in our wooden space as well as the stone crypt underneath the main body of the church.

It’s the only time in my life I received the post-Communion blessing with Xhosa clicks (symbolized by the exclamation points in the above text).

And he, like that blessing, were completely unforgettable.

Rest in power, Bishop.

Dec. 26, 2021 — A matter of carriage over content

This week, the second most-carried sports network on cable television is being shut down, as the NBC Sports Network’s contents will be heretofore split amongst USA Network, CNBC, and Peacock, the NBC Universal streaming service.

NBCSN is a relatively young network, having started life as the Outdoor Life Network in 1995, then becoming Versus, then as NBC Sports Network. As such, the network has built up its carriage to some 79 million households.

The transfer of some sports properties to USA Network will gain a few million more eyeballs, up to 96 million.

Here’s what I don’t get about this particular deal. NBC Universal is completely shutting down a network which draws nearly 80 million cable viewers. Granted, the number of cable-cutters has grown in the last few years because of high cable rates. Were I an executive wanting to maintain good relations with sports partners, I’d want to maintain good relations with someone who is receiving nearly $8 billion.

That someone is the International Olympic Committee. The IOC’s efforts to create an Olympic Channel in a number of key countries has thus far yielded six channels, including one in the United States which is carried in a mere 35 million households.

If NBC Universal had, instead of closing down NBCSN, decided to rebrand it as the Olympic Channel, it would nearly triple the coverage in American households overnight.

Instead, it seems as though the corporation is hell-bent on hiding content behind its own paywall. And the thing is, it’s not alone. All of the major rights-holders (ESPN, Paramount, NBC Universal, Fox) have plenty of content behind streaming paywalls.

Regrettably, there’s more to come in all of this.

Dec. 25, 2021 — The Omicron Christmas

If things were normal, I’d be writing this from the living of my sister’s house with family members circling around the room, discussing the latest in their lives.

But normal, this isn’t.

My sister, who has been an absolute rockstar when it comes to first response to the COVID-19 vaccine, was compelled to retire from being an active physician because of a rare bone cancer that has weakened her immune system.

I had wanted to visit in October, but the morning I got everything together, I felt something unusual in my heartbeat when getting out of the shower. I tested my heartbeat on the Kardia device I keep on my desk, and I found I had an AFib episode.

Though I have been able to control episodes through medication, there have been times when I have had an elevated, irregular heartbeat in times of anticipation or stress. Though I was able to take an extra dose of medication (as directed by my cardiologist) I didn’t feel as though I could make the trip because of the unpredictability of what my heart was doing. The nightmare scenario would be if I had an AFib episode while visiting.

It was an AFib episode which sent me to the hospital the weekend I was supposed to go and interview national scoring leader Hope Rose. I touched on what happened in this blog entry.

That nightmare has been overtaken by the spread this holiday season of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. It seems to be a rapid-spreading and highly contagious form of the virus, but one which has minimal effects on persons who have been vaccinated and boosted.

Now, I’m having my AFib addressed the second week of January at one of the best hospitals in the nation for the procedure. I have full faith in the folks planning this procedure, as well as in the medical science behind it.

I’m hoping for the best, that I’ll be coming out of this with a regular heartbeat and the ability to travel more than a couple of hours for a prominent field hockey or girls’ lacrosse contest.

Dec. 24, 2021 — Your national scoring champion

Ryleigh Heck is an athlete, a student of the game of field hockey, and a young woman with a sense of occasion. And, for the second time, she’s your national scoring champion.

During the fall 2021 season, Heck, the senior for Voorhees Eastern (N.J.), set a national record for goals in a field hockey season with 125. It was a season in which Heck appeared to be in another universe.

In a statistical feature for The Camden Courier-Post, hat tricks were totaled throughout the season. There were plenty of three-goal performances throughout the season in the paper’s coverage area, which is one of the traditionally powerful regions in America. But in that feature, Ryleigh Heck carved out her own section. The senior had a six-goal game, three seven-goal games, three eight-goal games, a nine-goal game, and a ten-goal game. Take these out of her 2021 total, and she still would have had a 50-goal season with just her “off” days.

You don’t need agate type to understand Ryleigh Heck’s greatness. All you had to do was to watch her play. Witness her jet speed, witness her work in tight defensive spaces, and her lightning backhand, on which she seemingly could score at will.

Heck’s run to the record included two incredibly important goals — incidentally, both were scored on forehand shots. There was the Tournament of Champions semifinal win over North Caldwell West Essex (N.J.), when she blasted in a 15-yard goal at the stroke of three-quarter time to bring Eastern to within one, setting up Eastern’s fourth-quarter comeback. And then there was that 125th and final goal, which came off a last-second penalty corner in the Tournament of Champions final against Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.).

The game-winning shot was a simple forehand, but it was in the face of immense pressure. There was the pressure of already playing a 60-minute game, and all of the attention of thousands of fans at Kean University. There was also the pressure of the occasion: the corner was awarded in the final seconds of the fourth quarter, and the final horn sounded during the corner.

Finally, there was the pressure of four Oak Knoll players tackling back on her — two from the corner defense unit and two outfielders coming in from the 50. One second’s hesitation, and Heck’s attempt might have been altered.

But Heck seized the moment, scoring the goal which won the game, the 2021 Tournament of Champions title, and a place in history: most goals in NFHS history in a field hockey season.

“It just doesn’t feel real,” she tells Advance Media. “I look back and I can’t believe we did that. It just feels like a dream and luck. It’s mind-blowing to me that everything turned out that way.”

Ryleigh Heck rejoins this talented list of field hockey players who have led the country in scoring the last few years. Please let us know if there are any additions or corrections that need to be made to the list below. This especially goes for 1988, a stat I’m bound and determined to find with some certainty.

2021: Ryleigh Heck, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) 125
2020-21: Hope Rose, Harrisburg Central Dauphin (Pa.) 90
2019: Ryleigh Heck, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) 78
2018: Mackenzie Allessie, Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.) 124
2017: Mackenzie Allessie, Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.) 91
2016: Megan Rodgers, San Diego Serra (Calif.) 81
2015: Nikki Santore, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) 69
2014: Austyn Cuneo, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) 95
2013: Austyn Cuneo, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) 96
2012: Austyn Cuneo, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) 68
2011: Austyn Cuneo, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) 69
2010: Danielle Allan, Pompton Lakes (N.J.) 56
2009: Kelsey Mitchell, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) 69
2008: Lucas Long, Allentown William Allen (Pa.) 43
2007: Lauren Gonsalves, Harwich (Mass.) 56
2006: Kaitlyn Hiltz, Virginia Beach Frank W. Cox (Va.) 50
2005: Kelly Fitzpatrick, Palmyra (Pa.) 66
2004: Amie Survilla, Mountain Top Crestwood (Pa.) 64
2003: Anne Marie Janus, Kingston Wyoming Seminary (Pa.) 44
2002: Shauna Banta, Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) and Amanda Arnold, West Long Branch Shore Regional (N.J.) 49
2001: Tiffany Marsh, Marathon (N.Y.) 57
2000: Rebecca Hooven, Plumsteadville Plumstead Christian (Pa.) 54
1999: Rebecca Hooven, Plumsteadville Plumstead Christian (Pa.) 48
1998: Kelli Hill, Manasquan (N.J.) 43
1997: Tiffany Serbanica, Madison (N.J.) Borough 43
1996: Carla Tagliente, Marathon (N.Y.) 51
1995: Kim Miller, Frank W. Cox (Va.) 63
1994: Michelle Vizzuso, North Caldwell West Essex (N.J.) 69
1993: Melissa Pasnaci, Miller Place (N.Y.) 60
1992: Diane DeMiro, North Caldwell West Essex (N.J.) 56
1991: Denise Nasca, Centereach (N.Y.) 56
1990: Shelley Parsons, Waterfall Forbes Road (Pa.) 50
1989: Christine McGinley, Medford Lakes Shawnee (N.J.) 40
1988: Unknown
1987: Kris Fillat, San Diego Serra (Calif.) 53
1986: Dana Fuchs, Centereach (N.Y.) 57
1985: Hope Sanborn, Walpole (Mass.) and Sharon Landau, Mamaroneck Rye Neck (N.Y.) 53
1984: Michelle Vowell, Garden Grove Santiago (N.Y.) 56
1983: Tracey Fuchs, Centereach (N.Y.) 82
1982: Mare Chung, San Diego Serra (Calif.) 48

Dec. 23, 2021 — Your national scoring runner-up

Every year in this space, we publish a story about the one athlete who winds up scoring the most goals in field hockey. That story runs tomorrow, and it will be about Ryleigh Heck, who is the single-season leader in goals scored in the history of scholastic field hockey.

But 2021 was less than a conventional year. We can’t wrap up our field hockey awards season without acknowledging the 113-goal season of Talia Schenck of Lawrence (N.J.). In any other year, any other era, we’d be giving her not only world-beating accolades, but likely lobbying for giving her the key to the city.

Lawrence Township (pop. 32,668) borders the capital city of Trenton. It has had plenty of good field hockey players and teams over the years, including a member of the senior women’s national team pool. Schenck, however, has been an absolute firecracker dropped into that program.

An attacking midfielder, Schenck has tools which few players in the history of the capital region ever had. She not only had the same kind of attacking tools and spatial awareness of top youth players, but she also had one of the best self-starts you will ever see. On numerous occasions, she would take off from any spot onto the field, beat midfielders for pace, and find the backboard with remarkable aplomb.

In 2021, she became one of only three scholastic field hockey players to score 100 goals in a season. But what she also gave to the Lawrence team was not only goals production, but the will to win. The Cardinals won their first major trophy, the Mercer County Tournament championship, in nearly 40 years with a 4-3 win over Princeton (N.J.) Day School.

The game-winning score came through Schenck’s efforts, but it wasn’t a whirling backhand, blistering forehand, or a self-start. Instead, it was a long through-pass in overtime that found a teammate for the game-winning score.

Schenck takes her talents next year to Princeton University. As she played her club for Princeton HC, I think she will not only fit right in with the team, I think she will be in critical roles for Carla Tagliente’s squad as it looks to return to Final Four form in the post-COVID era.

Dec. 22, 2021 — A roster and an eternal question

Trying to advance men’s field hockey in the United States is something I have always compared to the mythical character Sisyphus, who eternally fails to roll a boulder to the top of a hill.

Next month, Harry Singh takes the senior men’s field hockey team to the Pan American Cup in search of one of two berths in the 2022 FIH World Cup. It is a competition for which the U.S. men have never qualified.

But with health and safety protocols bedeviling players and teams in all sports, it’s entirely possible that a team you haven’t heard from may come out ahead in this tournament.

For the United States, a lot will go through captain and assistant coach Patrick Harris. Goalkeeper Jonathan Klages will also be looked to for defensive inspiration, and I think the midfield will be energized by Johnny Orozco and JaJa Kentwell.

It will be difficult to get into one of those top two spots, which will be determined in the semifinal round of this competition. With the U.S. being drawn into a group with Canada, Mexico, and Trinidad & Tobago, the States’ first job is to avoid fourth place in the group, which would relegate the team to the seventh-place game on Jan. 28th.

The second- and third-place teams cross over in the first elimination around, with the winner playing a group winner. Thing is, it is likely that the Americans would not be able to avoid having to play either of the two top-ranked teams in the competition: Canada and Argentina, neither of whom made the Final Four at Tokyo 2021.

Is there a glimmer of hope for the States? Let’s see what happens when the men’s competition begins Jan. 20th.