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Archive for July, 2022

July 31, 2022 — A short lesson in “sportswashing”

Today, the Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix had a title sponsor of Aramco, the company which is responsible for oil drilling in large parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

In France today, the Paris-St. Germain soccer team beat Nantes, 4-0 in the annual Champions Trophy, all while wearing their new jersey sponsor, Qatar Airways.

In Bedminster, N.J., the third tournament in the new LIV Golf Tour, a tour fully backed by the Public Investment Fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, finished off its final round.

These, and other sports-related investments of recent vintage, add up to what some call “sportswashing,” which, loosely defined, means trying to use sponsorships for public-relations purposes to counter criticisms of the regimes behind several petroauthoritarian states.

I’ve talked about some of this kind of “sportswashing” before, whether it was the ownership of the Brooklyn Nets or Chelsea Football Club. Many of the oligarchs who have bought into these teams have had to make a 100 percent turnaround because of European sanctions which have come into being after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But there have not been sanctions for the Middle Eastern sponsors of sport, even as withering criticism of their regimes has forced, for example, the cancellation of the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Bahrain in 2011, only to see it reinstated a year later.

But “sportswashing” has been around a lot longer than many of you may realize. If you watched network television in the weeks before the 1994 FIFA World Cup, you may have seen commercials extolling the fact that the Saudi Arabia men’s soccer team had qualified for the first World Cup to be held in the United States.

Little was said that women in Saudi Arabia did not have their own team. In fact, women in the kingdom did not have a number of civil rights and privileges’ that many of us take for granted. Women could not, until June of 2018, drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Strict interpretations of religious laws restricted when women could leave their homes, or limited the amount of higher education women could have.

As much as the criticism of the LIV golf tour has beleaguered the organizers, to the point where tickets for this weekend’s final rounds were going for $7, there is one major sportswashing event set for later this year. In November, the FIFA World Cup is being held in Qatar, an oil emirate which, it is alleged, has used indentured labor to build its stadiums while its top oil class lives in incredible luxury.

The lavish new construction in Qatar over the last 20 years has been featured as a centerpiece as the emirate has tried to become a center of sport. There was a cycling tour that ran for a few years but was cancelled in 2017 because of a lack of sponsor and a lack of challenging elevation: there were no attractive mountains for the climbers.

Which is surprising, given the fact that oil dollars have built enormous office buildings as well as artificial islands which, not surprisingly, have undergone some troubles because of the 2008 global financial crisis and global climate change.

We’ll see, in the next few years, whether the dollars behind sportswashing campaigns have a return on their investment — or if the oil money will last.

July 30, 2022 — After 132 years, an unprecedented ending

This afternoon’s doubleheader, encapsulating Matchday 5 of Athletes Unlimited women’s lacrosse, saw both games go into overtime.

But the nightcap, the game between Team Moreno and Team Apuzzo, could not be settled after three minutes of extra time with the game tied 10-10.

What happened next is an event which we don’t think has ever happened since women’s lacrosse was played in 1890 in Scotland.

The event: a post-overtime shootout. Each of the two teams, captained by Taylor Moreno and Sam Apuzzo, selected two groups of three players each.

One by one, the players lined up outside the 8-meter wedge and fired 2-point attempts towards a guarded goal. The team ahead after three rounds won the shootout.

But as you might expect in Athletes Unlimited, that initial phase did not decide matters. The teams went into a second group of three, whereupon Team Apuzzo won the shootout 3-2.

Now, I’ve done a little digging into the history of women’s lacrosse, and I have not seen any reference to any kind of women’s lacrosse tiebreaker set out in the rules except for the rules regarding overtime.

This is is marked contrast to field hockey, which has used as many as five different post-overtime tiebreakers to determine a winner in case of a draw.

I don’t pretend to know the thinking of lacrosse rulesmakers over the last 132 years. I just find it fascinating that nobody has come up with this kind of elegant solution before: free positions from the 8 to end a game.

I don’t know whether this will catch on in other levels of the sport, but I get the feeling it just might before too long.

July 29, 2022 — Your national scoring champion

When Fran Frieri scored her 200th career goal in an Illinois High School Association sectional final against Lenox Lincoln-Way (Ill.), it was the last gasp for the Porters in an 18-14 loss. And it was her final appearance on a scholastic field, since, as we mentioned yesterday, she did not get a berth in this weekend’s Under Armour All-America girls’ lacrosse game.

But the 200-goal effort is a landmark effort not only for girls’ high school lacrosse, but in the realm of youth athletics. Here’s a rundown of the known records for U.S. scholastic field invasion team sports:

TotalNameSportSchoolYear
200Fran FrieriGirls’ lacrosseLockport (Ill.) Township2022
130Kassi GintherGirls’ soccerSummit Christian Academy (Mo.)2017
125Ryleigh HeckField hockeyVoorhees Eastern (N.J.)2021
110Krissy WendellGirls’ ice hockeyPark Center (Minn.)2000
109Jace ConleyBoys’ lacrosseOrchard Lake St. Mary’s (Mich.)2018
94David RussellBoys’ soccerWeatherly (Pa.)2002
94Ron RolstonBoys’ ice hockeyFlint Powers Catholic (Mich.)1984
Sources: TopOfTheCircle.com, NFHS Record Book

Mind you, sports like ice hockey and soccer have had their elite school-age players weakened through pay-to-play clubs, but that in no way diminishes Frieri’s achievement.

For the second time, Frieri, the Notre Dame golden-domer, is your national scoring champion. Indeed, when you look at recent history, a number of players have been the No. 1 goal-scorer twice:

2022: Fran Frieri, Lockport (Ill.) Township, 200
2021: Fran Frieri, Lockport (Ill.) Township, 191
2020: No award because of global pandemic
2019: Brittany Sherrod, Versailles Woodford County (Ky.) 158
2018: Charlie Rudy, Novato (Calif.), 147
2017: Charlie Rudy, Novato (Calif.), 160
2016: Bridget Ruskey, Cape May Courthouse Middle Township (N.J.), 135
2015: Sophia Turchetta, Harvard Bromfield (Mass.), 158
2014: Sophia Turchetta, Harvard Bromfield (Mass.), 170
2013: Daniela McMahon, Saddle River Country Day School (N.J.), 143
2012: Emma Lazaroff, Lafayette Centaurus (Colo.), 143
2011: Alex Moore, Allentown (N.J.), 148
2010: Autumn MacMillin, Tecumseh (Mich.), 157
2009: Katie Ferris, Carthage (N.Y.), 138
2008: Courtney Miller, Chappaqua Horace Greeley (N.Y.) 125
2007: Mallori Selliger, Clarkstown (N.Y.) North, 88
2006: Shannon Smith, West Babylon (N.Y.) 129

July 28, 2022 — MISSING: 1,052 goals

They published the final rosters for this Saturday’s UnderArmour All-America girls’ lacrosse senior game as 46 of the best players from the scholastic class of 2022 are set to play in Baltimore on Saturday.

But there will be two players missing from the roster: two generational talents which have done something only four other players have done. That’s scoring over 500 goals in a scholastic career.

Fran Frieri, who is heading to Notre Dame, and Reagan O’Brien, the Johns Hopkins incoming first-year, were amongst the nation’s leading goal-scorers this year. Frieri became the first 200-goal scorer in a high-school lacrosse season. She helped propel her fifth-year varsity program, Lockport (Ill.) Township, to its deepest run in the state tournament. She finished with 545 goals, the most ever scored by a high-school player in a four-year career — and she did it in just three.

O’Brien, a senior from Boston (Mass.) Latin, finished her scholastic career with 507 goals, despite also losing the 2020 season to the global pandemic.

And yet, these two layers aren’t on the roster for this weekend’s game.

Now, I could understand if their college coaches already have them on mandatory preseason conditioning, or if they are holding themselves out of the game because of potential injury. It’s the kind of thing that has happened all the time in professional all-star games, where leagues have had to scramble to find last-minute replacements for players who have been voted into the lineup.

But if you have two players who have done what only Caitlyn Wurzburger, Shannon Smith, Taylor Pinzone, and Sophia Turchetta have done, you’d think that there would be room for them on the All-America teams.

July 27, 2022 — A bold, and offensive, stroke

Greg Drake, the head coach of the U.S. women’s national field hockey team, knew he had a certain amount of young talent coming out of last week’s NexUS championship.

In choosing a pool of 38 players to form the U.S. senior women’s national team for upcoming tournaments, he also did what a number of his predecessors either could not, or did not, do. And that is to assemble players who have a proven knack for doing what the object of the game is: put the ball into the back of the goal frame.

Amongst the 38 players are the following:

Erin Matson: 87 goals in just two seasons at Kennett Square Unionville (Pa.), 109 goals for the University of North Carolina
Mackenzie Allessie: 124 goals in one season and 351 goals for Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.)
Leah Crouse: 104 goals, 104 assists for Virginia Beach Frank W. Cox (Va.)
Charlotte De Vries, 191 goals for Virginia Beach Cape Henry Academy (Va.) and Tredyffrin Conestoga (Pa.)
Ryleigh Heck, 125 goals in one season and 323 career for Voorhees Eastern (N.J.)
Megan Rodgers, 81 goals in one season for San Diego Serra (Calif.)
Hope Rose, 90 goals in one season and 233 career for Harrisburg Central Dauphin (Pa.)
Meredith Sholder, 217 goals for Emmaus (Pa.)
Paityn Wirth, 180 goals for Millerstown Greenwood (Pa.)

Look. I know that the usual “past performance is no guarantee of future success” is part of every sport, especially in a sport where one call, one missed touch, one error in judgment can derail every plan a coach may have — especially against the likes of Holland, Argentina, or Australia.

And sure, there are situations in the world of sport where the player discarded in high school may become a cultural and sports icon (hello, Michael Jordan).

But I can’t tell you any time in the last 40 years where there has been so much attacking talent in the national team pool at the same time. I think perhaps the last time was in the mid-1990s when players like Tracey Fuchs (171 career goals at Centereach, 79 goals for UConn), Kris Fillat (53 goals at Serra in 1987), and Michelle Vizzuso (69 goals at West Essex in 1994, 50 goals and 60 assists at UVa) were part of the national side. Or what about when Katie O’Donnell (100 goals at Maryland) and Paige Selenski (100 goals at UVa) were on the national team in the early 2010s?

Sure, the United States has had plenty of attacking talent at its disposal. But every story of the players who have scored more than 135 goals in their careers often has a decision or an incident which knocks them off their path to national-team selections.

The group of 38 who are preparing for selection for the next iteration of FIH Pro League play is going to have not only expectations to live up to, but numbers that they have posted in lower levels of competition.

This, however, is a step up. And I’m excited to see what a group of 16 or 18 can do on the world stage.


July 26, 2022 — United States Coach of the Year: Jill Thomas, Princeton (N.J.) Day School

Heading due north out of Princeton, N.J., is County Road 604. But nobody calls it that. For generations of residents, that corridor is called The Great Road.

Take a left off Great Road at the top of a rise, and you will find Princeton (N.J.) Day School, an institution which has been around since 1899.

For the last 34 years, Jill Thomas has been an fixture in the life of the school, coaching basketball, coaching and umpiring field hockey, and being the public-address announcer for football games until the sport was discontinued in 2011.

In recent years, Thomas has also coached the school’s girls’ lacrosse team. The girls’ lacrosse program has gone through a number of coaches throughout the years, including the late Kim Bedesem, Leslie Hagan, and Thomas. Throughout, the Panther team was a dominant force in private-school girls’ lacrosse in the capital region of New Jersey.

The 2022 season, however, brought a new opportunity. Princeton Day School followed a number of its sister schools and gained admission into the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of public and some non-public schools in the state.

It also turned out that the first season of PDS’s dual membership in the NJSIAA and the New Jersey Independent Schools Athletic Association was going to be Thomas’ last as a coach, as she announced her retirement.

For her years of coaching and an unprecedent 2022 campaign, Thomas is the TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year.

What did the Panthers do in 2022? Well, within a period of three weeks, they won the NJISAA private-school tournament with a 13-12 win over Montclair-Kimberley Academy (N.J.), then won four win-or-go-home games in the NJSIAA Non-Public “B” tournament, culminating in a 17-11 win over Absecon Holy Spirit (N.J.).

Three days later, Thomas’ career ended with a 14-9 defeat to Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) in the final NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, but the Panthers were able do match what Oak Knoll has done in recent years — win the private/public school double for the Garden State.

In addition, PDS became the first girls’ lacrosse team from Mercer County to win a public-school state championship since the spring of 1985.

All the while, Thomas did it with her usual combination of hard work and humility. In what has become a Score-O decade in both field hockey and lacrosse, Thomas held fast to the principle that a field hockey team shouldn’t score more than five goals in a game, or win more than a certain amount in a girls’ lacrosse game.

And yet, throughout the years, Thomas has racked up win after win after win on the court and on the turf. It’s estimated that she has more than 600 wins in a coaching career that began in 1988.

When it comes to coaching, the year 1988 has a significance: it was when The Lawrenceville (N.J.) School started admitting girls, and immediately became a rival for Princeton Day School and the other private schools in the capital region.

It always seemed as though when a Thomas-coached team played Lawrenceville, the game became more than just a game. It was an occasion, and a mission.

But if there is one game I’ll always remember Thomas for, it was in another sport: field hockey. It was in 1996 when PDS took on the reigning NJSIAA Group IV champions in Flemington Hunterdon Central (N.J.). Despite the fact that PDS has one-sixth enrollment of Hunterdon Central, the Panther eleven played even up with Central for 60 minutes, coming away with a 0-0 draw.

In terms of small vs. large schools, this was a definite lesson for anyone watching or participating in this intersectional contest.

Jill Thomas taught a lot of lessons to her students and to observers for a third of a century. The girls’ lacrosse universe in central New Jersey is going to be lessened with her retirement.


ALSO CONSIDERED:

Allie Ferrera, Morristown (N.J.): Steered the Colonials through a murderous North Jersey Group IV bracket and won the state championship in the group. Only losses were to national powers Oak Knoll, Summit, and Chatham

Mary Gagnon, Brooklandville St. Paul’s School for Girls (Md.): It wasn’t the fact that the Gators were able to come out of the COVID years a winner in 2022, it’s just the fact that the team has had great and consistent winning form in the country’s finest lacrosse conference

Becky Groves, Sykesville Century (Md.): Steered the Knights to a state championship and the second unbeaten season in program history. Century handled Parkton Hereford (Md.) 15-6 to win the Class 2A state championship.

John Kroah, Massilon Jackson (Ohio): Came close to winning a first state championship against established powers

Savannah Porter, Canton Creekview (Ga.): Almost upended an established power, Milton (Ga.) in the state final, but lost a late lead

Laura Sandbloom, Denver Colorado Academy (Colo.): In her final year as head coach, she was able to best Highlands Ranch Valor Christian (Colo.) 13-9 in the Class 5A final for the team’s seventh straight championship

Olivia Smart, Huntington Beach Edison (Calif.): In five years, this team has become a true contender for postseason honors. Edison won its first Sunset League title and qualified for the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section Division 1 Tournament

Paige Walton, Glenelg (Md.) Country School: The veteran coach has won titles at the IAAM “C” Division and the “B” Division, and made a memorable run at a first “A” Division championship

Kristin Woods, New Canaan (Conn.): Playing a tough league schedule, the Rams were able to get past county rival Darien (Conn.) when it counted, the state championship final after each team split previous matches

July 25, 2022 — The current world champions are going to look a lot different

The 2022 World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship ended only a couple of weekends ago. But in the days since the United States’ win over Canada, it’s become clear that the 2025 team is going to look a lot different from this winning group.

A number of retirements have been announced over the last few days; the latest announcement came from Kayla Treanor, the Syracuse alumna who led the United States in scoring at the last two World Championships. In 2017, she had 24 goals and 19 assists, and followed it up with 20 goals and 14 assists at Towson.

Treanor was a crafty player on the level of a Dana Dobbie, finding angles and defensive faults that few of her peers could ever find, much less exploit.

But now, she’ll be trying to help others beat defenses as the head coach of her alma mater, Syracuse.

I think that, when the history of lacrosse is written, Treanor is going to be have a major chapter because of her willingness to be the one coach who replaced the legendary Gary Gait as the head coach of the Syracuse women.

I have this feeling that she’s going to find that one game plan that nobody else can plan for, and probably sooner than anyone expect. And I think she’ll be holding that wood, gold, and glass plaque they hand out at the end of the year. 

July 24, 2022 — Is tabloid media ousting a coach?

Over the last few years, local television news stations have resorted to more and more lurid stories to try to gain ratings during “sweeps” period.

More recently, especially during the pandemic, those local tabloid news outlets have started targeting the U.S. public education system for stories and ratings.

“BREAKING NEWS: Crisis in the Classroom!” scream the headlines as news stories ranging from reports of broken boilers to lead pipes are shown.

More recently, those crisis stories have been focusing on individuals within schools, targeting teachers and their supervisors personally. I saw one station take down an award-winning teacher at a local magnet school for the performing arts, because the teacher was accused of sexual misconduct. A bigger story emerged: the lack of oversight by the school district to do anything about personnel issues of this nature.

This past week, the Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate in Albany, N.Y. put the field hockey coach of Bethlehem (N.Y.) Central under fire for “mental abuse” allegations. The claim, put forth by one parent, is that 40 percent of the parents on the team were against the re-appointment of the coach. That parent, after that, wanted to have the district investigated for a lack of transparency.

The story elicited a response from the school district:

The Bethlehem Central School District retained an independent law firm to conduct a thorough investigation of allegations concerning its field hockey program. The investigation found that there was no violation of the District’s Code of Conduct or the Dignity for all Students Act within the field hockey program. The Board of Education’s July 2022 reappointment of the head field hockey coach was made after the investigation had concluded, and after the parents who had raised concerns were notified in writing of the outcome of the investigation, in June 2022.

Now, I’ve seen a number of situations like this over the last 24 years, where parents have had a beef with the way a coach operates. This has happened with both teams which have been unsuccessful, and also with title-winning teams. Some good coaches — including some with international experience — have been ousted by parents who have influence either in the town or over members of the school district.

More often than not, in my experience, there is very little behind abuse allegations. Indeed, I’d be very skeptical of this TV station because of its ties to Sinclair and other stations under that corporate umbrella which have seemingly been directed to direct investigative power against public schools. Sinclair is the largest corporation owning local television state in the United States, and, as such, has made some unusual demands on them. I invite you to read this story regarding their “must air” policy.

That is, however, no reason to dismiss the allegations at Bethlehem Central. You see, finding sexual liaisons between teachers and students is, frankly, like shooting fish in a barrel. I’ve followed one tracker of such stories over the course of more than two years, and the number of stories of inappropriate relationships averaged more than one per day across America.

Mind you, I’m sure that not every player on a field hockey team looks at the kind of coaching used to get the best out of them as a positive.

But I’ll reserve judgment as to whether actual abuse has occurred and leave it to professionals and not the tabloid media.

July 23, 2022 — A hidden sign of progress — or is it?

I didn’t want to go much further without circling back to some of the conference shifting happening in NCAA Division I.

One of the stories of the 2022 women’s lacrosse season was the fact that Stony Brook, a Top 10 program the last several years, did not have a chance to play for a conference championship because the school moved from the America East Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association. And the Seawolves still managed to get into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection.

SBU and Monmouth are two women’s lacrosse programs who are going to be part of the Colonial next year.

The other two universities joining the CAA, however, are two historically-black colleges: Hampton and North Carolina A&T. Hampton and North Carolina A&T are the second and third HBCUs to leave their all-Black conferences to join up with other universities; the first was Tennessee State University, which joined the Ohio Valley Conference in 1986.

Neither Hampton nor North Carolina A&T have a women’s lacrosse team, though Hampton did make headlines a few years ago by starting a men’s team.

We’ve noticed, over the last 25 years, a number of women’s athletics programs at HBCUs being added. But we’ve also noticed that a number of non-Black athletes have filled the scholarship slots in some of these sports, especially bowling and softball.

And then, there are HBCUs which have undergone nearly wholesale racial changes, such as Bluefield State, West Virginia State, and Kentucky State, all of which are 50-percent or more non-African American.

Can we see lacrosse teams; nay, even field hockey programs, coming from these two new entrants into the CAA?

It’s possible, though we’ve seen Tennessee State pretty much stand pat when it comes to the breadth of women’s programs. But let us see what is going to happen to the demographics of the schools in the long term. After all, one HBCU with a burgeoning non-African American population, the University of the District of Columbia, has both men’s and women’s lacrosse teams.

Let’s see.

BULLETIN: July 22, 2022 — An all-time great hangs up her cleats

Taylor Cummings announced her retirement today from lacrosse.

It is, you might surmise, a clean break in her life, since she opted out of Athletes Unlimited as its first champion.

And there’s this matter of her impending marriage in September.

Taylor Cummings is not necessarily an era-defining talent in women’s lacrosse. She, however, is one who has spanned the “excellence of execution” era of the 2010s and today’s “physicality era” which has yielded players like Charlotte North.

Cummings, no matter which team she suited up for, was an almost-guaranteed winner. It helped that she started off playing lacrosse at Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.) and the University of Maryland, winning multiple championships as well as three Tewaaraton trophies.

But she also did amazing work in post-graduate lacrosse, whether it was for the UWLX’s Baltimore Ride, the WPLL’s New York Fight, the various pick-up teams in Athletes Unlmited, or the U.S. senior women’s national team.

Her work was all over the pitch. She could take center draws, help build attacks in the midfield, spot teammates near the goal with a perfect pass, or finish herself. At times, it seemed as though time slowed when she got the ball, and you wanted to play classical music while she was in full flight.

And that goes especially for the night of May 22, 2015. For it was on that night, the first Tewaaraton Moment happened.

It was in the 21st minute of play in the NCAA Division I semifinals, when Syracuse was on a furious comeback after falling behind by five goals to Maryland early on. After a TV timeout, Cummings stood in the center circle, taking a draw against Syracuse attacking midfielder Kailah Kempney. Cummings popped the ball into the air, leapt, caught the ball, and galloped majestically towards the Syracuse goal cage. On the dead run, she shot the ball and scored. It took just eight seconds for her to completely wrest the momentum away from Syracuse.

It’s that kind of play — a brilliant individual effort within the context of team excellence — for which I’ll always remember Taylor Cummings. She is, for me, the greatest attacking midfielder of all time and a sure-fire first-ballot member of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.