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Archive for August, 2022

August 31, 2022 — A foreboding feeling

If there’s one visible measure of the strength of a given sport in the American culture, it’s the number of high schools offering the sport.

In 2022, while we don’t have an exact number of teams which will take to the field hockey pitch this fall, I have noticed one discouraging trend: an uptick in the number of co-op teams which have had to come into being in order to cover for the fact that numbers are down.

Now, there have been co-ops for a long time, especially among the small villages on Long Island, which leads to combined names such as Pierson-Bridgehampton, Bay Shore-Islip, and Greenport-Southhold. Allentown William Allen (Pa.), after coming up just a goal short of winning a state championship in 2009, has had to form a co-op the last couple of years with Allentown Louis Dieruff (Pa.) in order to get enough numbers to compete. Similarly, Westbrook (Conn.) has had to do the same with Old Lyme (Conn.).

But I’m noticing a lot more co-op arrangements starting this year. In Missouri, St. Louis University City (Mo.) has joined forces with Rosati-Kain in order to form United Field Hockey. In Maine, Dexter (Maine) is merging its team with Corinth Central (Maine). In New Jersey. Sayreville (N.J.) War Memorial is now a co-op with South Amboy (N.J.). Two long-time South Jersey programs — Pitman and Glassboro — have also had to merge. On the non-public side, Denville Morris Catholic (N.J.) is now a co-op team with Florham Park Academy of St. Elizabeth (N.J.).

The number of co-op teams is, to me, a bit disconcerting. And that’s because every time a pair is put together in a co-op situation, it reduces by one the number of scholastic teams in America.

You also have to look at it from the other side. The co-op system allows two struggling schools — and their players — a chance to compete. Who knows which player from a co-operative program might not only become a good player, but one which could not only be recruited, but can also serve as a draw for younger players within the school district to get better behind them?

I’m going to keep an eye on some of these merged teams. It should be interesting to see the improvements when given another chance to play.

August 30, 2022 — A milestone at 50

I didn’t want to go much further without acknowledging the fact that this year is the 50th anniversary of The Apple Tournament, the season-opening field hockey championship amongst Louisville-area schools.

The Apple Tournament has gone from an organized playday for field hockey into a bellweather tournament which goes a long way to predict what will happen in the Kentucky state tournament.

On the first Friday, alumnae of the host institution Louisville Sacred Heart (Ky.) gathered together for a golden-anniversary celebration. On the second Friday, the Valkyries dropped a 2-1 decision to Louisville Assumption (Ky).

Assumption is coached by Jody Schaefer, who is one of the living histories of the tournament, having either played or coached in an estimated 35 Apple Tournaments over the years.

“Girls from these teams are going to be playing all over the country next year,” Schaefer tells television station WDRB. “And they’re carrying a little bit of Louisville with them, a little bit of the Apple with them and it becomes something that’s bigger than just a tournament. It’s the ability to grow women and bring women into a space where they can be successful and learn how to be good people.”

And competitive people, too. Both Assumption and Sacred Heart will be playing later next month at the National High School Invitational, and will be playing not just for themselves, but to uphold the honor of Kentucky field hockey, something which they have done quite well in the past.

August 29, 2022 — A rebuilding job on The Farm

One year ago, the Stanford field hockey team, having just been given a reprieve from having the program cancelled, was a team in need of direction, players, and, above all, goalkeeping.

When Stanford played its 2021 season, it did so with only a small number of subs and not a single goalie. The Cardinal played almost its entire season with 12 field players and still won four games, just failing to get to the semifinals of the America East tournament.

Fast-forward to this fall, where the Cardinal have subs and two fully-kitted goalies. And not just any goalies; the two first-year keepers appear to be of a different class and character from most of their peers. This afternoon, Daisy Ford, the team’s starter, had a fine game in a 1-0 loss to Maryland. This followed on from a 2-1 overtime win against Holy Cross last week.

Head coach Roz Ellis has done, I think, an absolutely masterful job thus far in terms of reviving the ship. You look at the recruiting net she has cast, and you see Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Delaware, and North Carolina on the roster.

Imagine when she starts getting more Californians.

August 28, 2022 — A special team

Field hockey has its share of necessary special-teams work. There are designated corner defense units, designated corner attack units (started with a great striker), and even goalies who can come into the game just to defend a penalty stroke.

But the special team that had a major flex this afternoon was the overtime team that North Carolina put onto the field against Iowa in a game which could very well be a national final preview.

The United States is virtually the only country in the world that plays overtime, much less the 7-on-7 overtime period that came into vogue in the U.S. 30 years ago. I have seen some pretty good overtime teams over the years, including a Hightstown (N.J.) team which once went an entire season without losing in extra time in a league (the Colonial Valley Conference) which played out all games to conclusion including the penalty shootout.

The overtime format creates a lot of space, but it also is a crucible: a team can burn off its four least-talented or least-fit players for the lineup.

The University of North Carolina sent out these six outfielders for overtime:

  • Katie Dixon, a junior from Cary (N.C.) Christian;
  • Madison Orobono, a senior from Emmaus (Pa.), who decided to play only club field hockey her junior and senior years of high school;
  • Ashley Sessa, a first-year player from Newtown Square Episcopal Academy (Pa.) who is currently with the U.S. women’s national team;
  • Erin Matson, a fifth-year from Kennett Square Unionville (Pa.), who did likewise and has become a mainstay of the U.S. women’s national team;
  • Meredith Sholder, a fifth-year from Emmaus (Pa.), who for a time had the Pennsylvania career goal-scoring lead (217), and is on the U.S. women’s national team roster;
  • Ryleigh Heck, a first-year player from Voorhees Eastern (N.J.), who is the single-season record goal-scorer (125) and is also on the U.S. women’s national team.

Four members of the U.S. national team pool? Are you kidding me?

North Carolina could have jumped on Iowa to start overtime because the Hawkeyes received a green card in the final minute of play, a penalty which carried into overtime. But the Heels, in a boss move, kept the ball in the backfield in front of their goalie Abigail Taylor, and only started attacking one the teams were even.

Carolina had the ball for a good portion of the first three minutes of extra time, then had a penalty corner. The attempt was unsuccessful, whereupon Iowa had a 16-yard free out. On the play, Heck flashed in with a quick stick and made a quick steal. She threw it into the middle of the park to an open Sessa. Sessa took a shot from the top of the circle, which was ably saved by Iowa goalie Grace McGuire. The rebound found, of all people, Matson. From about eight yards away, Matson slammed in her 113th career goal giving UNC the win.

Given what I saw in terms of how these gifted players work with each other, I’ll call it now: if you’re going to beat North Carolina, you better do it in 60 minutes. The Heels’ overtime septet is that lethal.

Aug. 27, 2022 — A slow-motion train wreck

There’s supposed to be a football game between Florida A&M University and North Carolina today, one of a number of games that big-time college football teams schedule early in the season to guarantee a Homecoming-sized win and, from a financial standpoint, give the overmatched an opponent a certain degree of exposure as well as a windfall which is often the equivalent of the payout for making the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.

These kinds of payouts, especially for an HCBU, are not insubstantial.

But Florida A&M was in a logistical pickle late this week. Fully a quarter of the team’s roster are academically ineligible to play, and the Rattlers have only seven available offensive linemen to protect their quarterback.

Indeed, we’ve been hearing that the players have been holding meetings to decide whether or not to play.

Ultimately, it seems, the money is the overwhelming aspect, over health and safety. The decision was to go ahead and play the game.

It is a decision which would not have been made a year ago if there was a COVID-19 outbreak amongst one or the other universities.

Think about it.

August 26, 2022 — And so, it begins

Shortly after 11 a.m. in Lock Haven, Pa., two umpires will bring a hockey ball onto Charlotte E. Smith Field, a turf pitch she could have only dreamed of when she started the field hockey program at the institution formerly known as Lock Haven Teachers’ College in 1945.

Two teams, representing Rider University and Bellarmine University, will face each other. A whistle will blow, and the plastic ball will make that distinctive “clack” against carbon fiber or the other space-age composites which make up today’s field hockey stock.

With that moment, the NCAA Division I field hockey season begins. It will be a carnival of sound and thunder, with hopes for victory amongst the participants in the roughly 800 games that will be played between now and the title match in mid-November in Storrs, Conn.

Best of luck and health to the women who will be participating this year.

August 25, 2022 — An additional competitor in a crowded field

When you look at a map of the U.S. marked with the locations of universities with women’s lacrosse teams, the additional programs which have been added the last 25 years have created a large wave which has spread out from the sport’s roots along the Northeast, and has resulted in funded women’s lacrosse in Florida, Tennessee, Indiana, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, and California.

Which makes one of the more recent universities seeking to start a women’s lacrosse program a bit of an outlier. Rider University is a former teachers’ college tucked into central New Jersey between a Princeton University which has won three NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse championship, and The College of New Jersey, which has won a record 12 Division III titles (a 13th, won in 1992, was vacated because of the use of an ineligible player).

As such, a Rider University women’s lacrosse program is starting on the back foot when it comes to tradition and success. And it’s hard to envision Rider, which will be playing out of a one-bid conference once it becomes a full member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, becoming an instant powerhouse on the level of an early 2000s Northwestern or an early 2010s Florida.

Then again, if the Rider folks make a great hire for a head coach, I think the possibilities are endless. There are enormously talented teams within a two-hour car trip from the New Jersey capital region, including the likes of Long Island, the Hudson Valley, northern New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, and, of course, the traditional hotbed comprising the eight-county South Jersey area.

I remember once that TCNJ’s entire front line came from Medford Lakes Shawnee (N.J.) and they helped the Lions to part of their purple patch in the 1990s when they rang up more than 100 consecutive victories between 1992 and 1997. And Shawnee also gave Princeton one of its all-time greats, Hollie McGarvie Reilly, who won two World Cups with the United States.

The choice of head coach for the new Rider program will give us an idea as to how aggressive the program is going to be at trying to be successful. I guess we’ll know when the first Rider players step on the pitch this time next year for fall-ball.

August 24, 2022 — A much, much wider release

One year ago, we released our lists of who we thought were going to be the top teams in each of the three NCAA divisions as well as our back-of-the-envelope preseason Top 10 for high schools.

We decided to split up the four lists to each of our social media outlets. But the thing is, few of you are on every single one of the social media channels we use.

So, what did we do? Well, starting this evening, the NCAA Division I Fearless 5ive is going to be posted on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Have a look; we’re following up with Division II on Thursday, Division III on Friday, and the National Preseason Top 10 on Saturday.

August 23, 2022 — Women’s sports making a break for over-the-air TV, but at what cost?

Today, it was announced that two major women’s athletic competitions were going to be showing their grand finals on not some out-of-the-way streaming service, but on network television.

Yep, that’s right — on the Big Four.

The National Women’s Soccer League will be hosting its championship game in prime time on CBS later this fall. This has occurred while most of the rest of the league’s contests have been shown on either Paramount Plus, or on Twitch.

Meanwhile, the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship is moving from ESPN to parent network ABC for the first time. This, as other women’s championships like lacrosse and softball have been getting record ratings on various ESPN platforms.

There’s just one thing that concerns me, however. Both Paramount and Disney — the parent companies of these two major networks — have seen the reach and pull of the over-the-air network being driven down the last quarter-century, as there is a grappling between cable networks and streaming networks for the viewer dollar. The legacy over-the-air rabbit-ears networks are seen at little more than afterthoughts.

Want proof? Paramount has not shown a single episode of two of its most popular series — Picard and Discovery — on CBS, making fans of the Star Trek universe have to pony up to get the streaming service. Too, Disney is moving its most popular reality show, Dancing With The Stars, exclusively to Disney Plus, making fans of that show pay in order to watch.

So, what’s responsible for the NCAA and NWSL moving championship games to over-the-air TV? A lot of it is, of course, money. Ally, an insurance and banking company, became the sponsor of the 2022 final once it was known the game — and its commercials — would be on CBS.

When it comes to the NCAA, the move to ABC is coming right before a new series of contracts are being negotiated for collegiate sports which are not football and men’s basketball. Rumor has it that women’s basketball will be getting its own multimillion-dollar deal.

Now, with women’s hoops getting a standalone contract, what does that do for the rest of the NCAA sporting universe? What about events like the College World Series, or the Frozen Four? Or, even moreso, the event which set all kinds of records last spring, women’s lacrosse?

I couldn’t tell you what is going to happen to individual championship events. Indeed, I wonder if the playing field will go back to what it was before 2010, when individual networks had the right of first refusal for sports content.

It’s this kind of system which resulted in the women’s Frozen Four appearing suddenly on the Big Ten Network one year because there were multiple Big Ten teams in it. It also resulted in College Sports Television suddenly broadcasting the NCAA Division I men’s volleyball championship in 2003, the year Lewis University won the title but had to vacate because of numerous rules violations.

And there was also 2010, when ESPN, after largely ignoring women’s lacrosse, thought it necessary to broadcast Virginia’s first NCAA Tournament game in 2010 after the murder of Yeardley Love. The coverage did little to counter the perception of ESPN as tabloid sports media. No other first-round games were broadcast that year.

One can hope that the coverage of non-basketball and non-football events won’t go behind the proverbial paywall. But given what we’re seeing (or not seeing), I’m not so sure the next contract will be good for field hockey or women’s lacrosse.

August 22, 2022 — A continual impossibility

This afternoon, Kris Ward was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Washington Spirit of the NWSL. He was seen as the savior of the franchise after the firing of Richie Burke due to allegations of misconduct while head coach.

It has gotten out, in the last few hours, that Ward had lost the locker room. There was a specific incident when the team disinvited him from a team event.

Ward’s firing comes at the end of a 15-game winless streak, one which occurred after he had not only steered the Spirit to the NWSL title, but deep into the bracket of the season-opening NWSL Challenge Cup.

The thing is, there appears to be nobody willing or able to take on the mantle of head coach at the Spirit. Assistant coach Angela Salem will be running training sessions for the team, but was not named as interim head coach. Another assistant, former U.S. international Lee Nguyen, had left the team in the last few weeks to pursue a playing career in the Vietnamese national league. And former Philadelphia Charge coach Mark Krikorian, now the Spirit’s general manager, is reportedly not being considered for the job, either.

As we’ve detailed in the pages of this blog, it’s been difficult to be a National Women’s Soccer League manager. In the last year and a half, almost every team in the league has had a coach, general manager, or even managing partner/co-owner have to step down or resign under a cloud of accusations about behavior and/or abuse.

And I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to take the Spirit job, given the level of scrutiny that hiring managers within the league and the team are going to have to undergo in order to get the job. And then there’s the real issue: being able to keep the job.