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Aug. 16, 2019 — The nation’s best scholastic rivalry, amplified

Last November, the field hockey teams from Virginia Beach First Colonial (Va.) and Virginia Beach Frank W. Cox (Va.) battled for nearly 90 minutes on a frigid day in northern Virginia for the VHSL Class 6A title.

The schools are located about a mile apart, and their rivalry has become the stuff of legend even with the graduation of some legendary players over the last quarter-century.

But this year, these two schools have been moved down to VHSL’s Class 5A. The tournament has an absolute Murderers’ Row of talented programs such as Stafford Mountain View (Va.), Gloucester (Va.), Virginia Beach Princess Anne (Va.), and Fredericksburg Stafford (Va.), all of whom have won state titles in the past.

Potential opposition could also come from Stafford North Stafford (Va.), Alexandria Thomas Jefferson (Va.), and Glen Allen Deep Run (Va.), but the attention towards the end of the year will definitely be on the 18 teams in Region A, which is clustered towards the eastern part of the state.

How well will these two teams do in the region? We’ll get a first indication Sept. 17th when the two teams meet at the Regional Training Center’s turf.

Aug. 15, 2019 — Headed towards an Olympic oblivion?

Sometime in the next year and a half, the program for the 2028 Summer Olympics will be finalized.

There will be some hefty negotiation, I think, between the Los Angeles Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LA2028), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the International Hockey Federation (FIH), the world governing body for the sport of field hockey.

That’s because of speculation from some European media sources that, especially with the onset of men’s and women’s lacrosse into the Olympics by 2028, that a reduced-side tournament for field hockey will be instituted for Los Angeles, similar to what is played in the Youth Olympic Games.

Now, we’ve mentioned already that WorldLacrosse has already agreed to a six-a-side outdoor game to be the international standard, and the first tournament to test the so-called “international rules” package will be the 2021 World Games, which will be held the same summer as the next Women’s World Cup (which, we suspect, will be 10-a-side).

For field hockey to undergo the same kind of small-side indignity that rugby has gone through, with the imposition of Rugby Sevens, may be a bridge too far for FIH.

The problem, from the IOC’s side, is that they are pressing up against a hard cap of Olympic participants. They don’t want any more than the 10,500 athletes that have been the standard the last few Summer Olympics.

There have been a number of cuts in Olympic sports. The number of weight classes in boxing and wrestling have been reduced, and stricter qualifying standards have been imposed in athletics and swimming. Baseball and softball were removed altogether in 2008, only to come back next summer.

The one thing I don’t want to see is what happened with the Goodwill Games, where a number of events which were part of the original Games in 1986 got pushed aside for the benefit of either the host nation or for television. By the last Goodwill Games in 2001 in Brisbane, there were only 15 athletic disciplines contested, including that ratings dynamo, surf lifesaving.

For Los Angeles 2028, I don’t want to see a sham competition for which, thanks to the participant cap, the level of competition and excitement falls off the table.

Given what happened 96 years previously, with only Japan, India, and the host Americans playing three field hockey games in the Los Angeles Coliseum, and none of the matches were at all competitive, we have seen this already.

Aug. 14, 2019 — The start of a bureaucratic era?

It was in 2000 when I parked myself on a practice field at the United States Naval Academy to interview Kate Sobrero for a story that ran on this website.

My impression of her that day was of someone who is intelligent, polite, and very good at what she does. At the time, Sobrero was a defender for the U.S. women’s national soccer team.

This week, Kate Markgraf was selected to be the first general manager of the U.S. women’s national soccer team. This selection, along with the promotion of Earnie Stewart to be the common Sporting Director of both the men’s and women’s national programs, as well as the future hiring of a men’s national team GM, are the start of what could be a problem in the long term.

The problem is that U.S. Soccer is beginning to believe that the mere imposition of a group of people to do certain tasks — the construction of a bureaucracy — is what could help the men’s national soccer team get back to the World Cup and keep the women’s senior national team on top of the world even as all but one sub-senior national team coaching position is currently vacant.

Too, not all of American soccer is speaking with one voice. It’s still a fractured mish-mosh including a development academy, a rebel group of youth teams with its own national footprint, high schools, colleges, and several levels of semiprofessional soccer leading to MLS on the men’s side and the NWSL on the women’s.

I’m not sure that trying to organize all this is in the best interest of the game nationwide. Not one person can, I think, even if given the authority to do so.

Which, inevitably, means that Kate Markgraf, as the first to be hired as U.S. Soccer GM, is going to be the first to resign or be fired from the same position.

Such is the nature of bureaucracy.

 

Aug. 13, 2019 — The stories of the season

In one week, the 47th Apple Tournament, the traditional opening event of the American scholastic field hockey season, will begin in Louisville, Ky.

The tournament will start 14 weeks of action covering some 27 states and the District of Columbia. Somewhere around 35,000 games will be contested from the rocky shores of Maine to the sandy beaches of California and everywhere in between, before culminating Nov. 16th.

As such, there are a number of stories that are going to bear watching in 2019:

  1. A scoring encore? As was the case in girls’ lacrosse last spring, the 2018 field hockey season represented an outright takeover by current players over the all-time scoring lists. Led by Mackenzie Allessie’s 351 goals, the field hockey pitches across America were laden with goals, goals, and more goals. There were other heroic performances by the likes of Charlotte de Vries, Sammy Popper, and Paityn Wirth, as they finished right around the 190-goal mark. The next generation heading up the scoreboard is led by Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) senior Kara Heck and Oley (Pa.) Valley senior Sophia Gladieux. There is another player to keep an eye on this fall: Lucas Crook, the senior midfielder for Somerset Berkley (Mass.), is about to join the rare 100-goal, 100-assist club. He has 87 goals and 89 assists in his varsity career, and would be the first male field hockey player to be in that category.
  2. Defense, on the other hand. After the speed of the game and the “superman” effect of mandatory eyewear on players has led to video-game numbers in terms of goals scored, I think this is going to be the year where goalies and defenders are going to tip the balance back towards their side. Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.), Villanova Academy of Notre Dame de Namur (Pa.), Hershey (Pa.), and Louisville Assumption (Ky.) are teams with tremendous defense coming back.
  3. Winning title after title. Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) is looking to win its 21st consecutive NJSIAA state championship this fall. (One could say that the winning streak is about to be eligible to enter a tavern.) Last fall, however, Shrub Oak Lakeland (N.Y.) and Watertown (Mass.) fell short of winning their 10th straight titles. Emmaus (Pa.) will be going for their 31st consecutive PIAA District 11 championship, a remarkable streak that encompasses the school’s ability to win against small-school and large-school competition over the years. And as we mentioned late last year, West Long Branch Shore Regional (N.J.) had its 48-year regular-season divisional title string snapped, as it fell two games adrift of Rumson-Fair Haven (N.J.) in the Shore “A” Central division. It is a remarkable and immortal feat.
  4. New faces taking over in the coaching box. After 50 years on the job, Barbara Major of Lawrence Notre Dame (N.J.) announced her retirement over the winter. So did Kathleen “Cookie” Bromage of Enfield (Conn.). Meanwhile, Judy Schneider of Hanover (Mass.) will be starting her 54rd season as head coach, which is believed to be the all-time record.
  5. The ramping up of competition. The 2019 season will have a number of in-season tournaments such as the Gateway Invitational, the county tournaments in New Jersey, and other four-school tournaments in September. But a weekend of games in Conshohocken, Pa. in late September, called The National High School Invitational, threatens to set a new standard on the level of, say, the Eastern States Christmas Invitational Tournament before it was subsumed by superprep teams, and they in turn moved their competition to places like Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas, Nev. The tournament boasts 41 games contested by 36 teams which run the gamut between public, private, prep, parochial, and even a charter school (DuPont Manual from Louisville, Ky.). This one can’t be missed.

Aug. 12, 2019 — Is USA Field Hockey on the verge of a “What are we doing” moment?

“If this doesn’t wake everyone up … from pay-to-play, to broadcasters, to everything, then we’re all insane. Because the definition of insanity is doing the exact same thing knowing the result.” — Taylor Twellman

In the just-concluded Pan American Games, there was a situation where two sides of one team sport, separated by gender and several million dollars in funding, achieved the exact same result for the same nation.

And never have two similar results engendered such different responses. And such markedly different outcomes for the future.

For the U.S. men’s field hockey team, a third place was seen as a remarkable achievement, given the lack of development structure in the States as well as a wide gulf in funding between itself and the women’s national team.

For the U.S. women, the bronze medal was a let-down, given the tens of millions of dollars that have been spent on the national team and its infrastructure since the National Training Center opened in Virginia Beach in October of 2001.

Too, the loss keeping the Americans out of the Pan American Cup final was to Canada, a country with just 10 college varsity programs, compared to the nearly 200 in the United States. Team Canada, moreover, has had to self-fund its way to Peru.

And yet, despite all this, the U.S. women’s team still has a puncher’s chance at going to Tokyo 2020 if they can win a two-game series against a yet-to-be drawn team from a pool of teams ranked fourth through seventh of non-qualified teams.

But that shouldn’t mask the fact that the States’ record in 2019 before the Pan American Games was two wins, one draw, and 19 defeats.

Mind you, the U.S. men were not all that better in run-up play to the Pan American Games. But somehow, this ragtag group of players, including some imports from overseas and the ethnic communities of the U.S., came together as a unit and put together some quality results, especially in the bronze-medal match.

Now, the recent history of the U.S. women’s field hockey team does have a smattering of foreign influences. Melanie Meerschwam, a terrific striker of Dutch descent, played for the team in the early 2000s. At about the same time, there were moves to get Marina DiGiacomo, the all-time leading NCAA scorer, her American citizenship. But by the 2004 Olympics, she was playing for her birth nation, Argentina.

Two of the better players from recent national teams were born outside of the United States. Caroline Nichols was born in Bermuda, while Kayla Bashore-Smedley was born in South Korea.

Perhaps bringing in a foreign player or two might be a good thing, given the fact that, in recent international tournaments, players like Ayeisha McFerran (Louisville and Ireland), Megan Frazer (Maryland and Ireland), and Nike Lorenz (Maryland and Germany) who have been trained at American schools, have had brilliant performances against a United States side which had been fourth in the world in 2014, but have slipped in the last few years because of retirements.

I don’t know if the results at this Pan American Games will result in changes to the U.S. developmental system alone, but given what it takes to qualify for world-level international tournaments, I think we can all agree that throwing money at the problem is not enough.

Aug. 11, 2019 — Pan American Games men: USA 2, Chile 1

You can pity the American men’s field hockey program for the last three-quarters of a century in search of World Cup or Olympic berths.

Amateur infrastructure. No varsity teams feeding talent from schools, colleges, or universities. And national media interest about the level of team handball.

And yet through all of that, the current U.S. men’s team, thanks to a ragtag group of U.S.-born club players and some foreign transfers, have pulled off one of the more remarkable achievements in its history, winning the Pan American Games bronze medal with a 2-1 win over Chile in yesterday’s classification match in Lima.

It was the first bronze medal for the U.S. program since 1995, albeit it was the second bronze in a row, as the Americans won bronze at Spooky Nook two years ago. It was a tournament that saw the U.S. fall in a penalty shootout to Canada in the semifinal round.

 

 

Aug. 10, 2019 — U19 World Cup: USA 13, Canada 3

The U.S. Under-19 women’s lacrosse team has been so good, so devastating through pool play and knockout play that it was hard imagining anything — or anyone — stopping it. It was as unstoppable as an express train at full momentum, scoring 20 goals in three straight matches, winning all but one 15-minute quarter, and never falling behind in any match.

Turns out, early in the championship final of the U19 World Cup, that the only thing that could stop the States was the weather. After the Americans took a 3-0 lead at quarter-time, heavy wind and rain came over the pitch in Peterborough, Ontario, whereupon the Americans yielded two quick goals to Kylea Dobson and Annabel Child. The pro-Canada crowd went berserk; could the defending champions reverse a 13-5 result from a scant six days earlier?

In stepped the Americans’ talisman this tournament, Izzy Scane. The Northwestern freshman pumped in two goals 2:01 apart to fuel the U.S. Express, which kept on rolling to the tune of nine straight goals over the next three periods, winning the game and the gold medal 13-3. Not even a second yellow to Kasey Choma could dampen the States’ attack, as the incisive American attack kept on solving the Canadian defense.

Leah Holmes stamped her authority on this match with four goals to lead the Stars and Stripes. But tellingly for the American side, all six assists were recorded in the 30th minute or later; Canada was paying for its inability to defend against cross-fan skip pass in the second term, where the Leafs had been bailed out by its fine goaltender Cassidy Eckert.

Canada also tried a number of tactics to thwart Maddie Jenner in the draw circle, putting one and sometimes two players on her on the catch, and redefending like wolves trying to keep the ball from entering the attack zone. That tactic worked for a while thanks to Canada center Jordyn Sabourin, the product of Towson Notre Dame Prep (Md.). Yep, the one player who knew best about Jenner through their time in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland.

But through the second and third quarter, the U.S. Express left the station and wouldn’t be stopped. Caitlin Wurzburger had a goal and two assists during the American barrage. Wurzburger, a rising senior in high school, led the U.S. in scoring in this tournament with 21 goals and 19 assists. Strikingly, she had her 21 goals on just 25 shot attempts, shooting 84 percent from the field: an unheard-of percentage at this level.