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Jan. 18, 2020 — A threat to a growing field hockey area

It was 2008 when the commonwealth of Kentucky made its first real breakthrough on the national field hockey scene, when Louisville Sacred Heart (Ky.) posted a 29-0 record to be the No. 1 team in the U.S.

By 2014, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) took over governing the sport and its state championship tournament.

However, there’s going to be a vote in a few weeks which could end KHSAA sponsorship of field hockey. The justification that has been going around is that the current number of varsity field hockey teams is far short of the 50 needed to have a state tournament, according to state by-laws.

What’s happened? Frankly, lacrosse happened. A healthy rivalry has developed between teams in the Louisville area and a new group of lacrosse-playing schools in Lexington. Indeed, a Lexington-area player led the nation in scoring last spring.

But in the last five years, there has not been a parallel pattern of development in field hockey.

Given the offseason playing opportunities within the state for field hockey, I’m flummoxed that there has not been one school in greater Lexington to take up the challenge.

Now, while people have started an on-line petition to keep KHSAA as a sanctioned sport, the real work of adding teams — if not in Lexington, then around the entire commonwealth — is going to have to happen sometime soon.

Jan. 17, 2020 — Player of the Decade: Taylor Cummings, Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.)

Presentation1The 2010s were a decade which saw a radical change in the product of what we call “lacrosse.”

But for one player, it did not matter whether the game was played with or without a possession clock, whether the sides were 10-on-10 or 12-on-12. Of if the shirt she was wearing was the black and orange of Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.), the black and red of the University of Maryland, the purple of the Baltimore Ride, the blue of the New York Fight, or the red and blue of the United States.

Taylor Cummings was, throughout the decade of the 2010s, the ultimate winner. If you added up the win-loss record of every game she played in or coached from 2010 to 2020, she lost maybe 12 games out of about 200 — a phenomenal record.

“I’ve been incredibly blessed to play on such incredible teams surrounded by the most amazing teammates and coaches,” she says. “From McDonogh, to Maryland, to the pro circuit, and Team USA, I have loved every second I’ve had the chance to play, learn, and grow this game alongside my teams. Even years later, the losses still sting, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Cummings’ quality of play in the midfield was exceptional. Even during this Score-O Decade in which a number of players exceeded the 400-goal barrier, Cummings’ play and field generalship were game-changing.

She won draws, scored goals, and shared the ball effortlessly with her teammates while at McDonogh. While at the school, she not only won four IAAM championships in lacrosse, she also won private-school championships in basketball and in girls’ soccer.

As good as she was at McDonogh, she went next-level at the University of Maryland, winning a pair of NCAA titles and creating what might have been the first “Tewaaraton Moment” for a national player of the year candidate since the award was first bestowed.

The incident was the 21st minute of play of the national final at Towson. Syracuse, after falling five goals adrift in under five minutes, had crawled back to within one.

After a TV timeout, Cummings stepped into the draw circle against Syracuse attacking midfielder Kailah Kempney. Cummings popped the ball into the air, leapt, caught the ball, and took off running. Like an arrow, she cut through the Syracuse defense, and scored, only eight seconds after the restart.

Only a week later, she won the first of three Tewaaraton trophies.

A year ago, the decorated player, fresh off winning gold medals at the FIL Women’s World Cup and the World Games, became head coach at McDonogh, her alma mater. And, just like in her playing days, the Eagles parlayed draw dominance, teamwork, and smart scoring into an undefeated season, an IAAM championship, and a consensus No. 1 postseason ranking.

Apparently, you can go home again.

 

 

Jan. 16, 2020 — From sad-sack to hope?

Today, the National Women’s Soccer League draft occurred in Baltimore. With it, the nine teams in the league added to their rosters from the available pool of college players, plus a number of teams made trades in order to either move up or down in the draft order.

Or, in the case of SkyBlue FC, perhaps make the moves necessary to win the 2020 NWSL title.

Yup, THAT SkyBlueFC, which not only has never finished above sixth place in the history of the NWSL, it’s the SkyBlue FC which:

  • Lost 50 games in the last four years;
  • Saw a supporters’ revolt when the team didn’t respond to calls to upgrade its facilities or hire a new coach;
  • Found itself being owned by the current governor of the state of New Jersey, creating a number of possible conflicts of interest.

And yet — and yet — SkyBlue FC has agreed to move its home matches to the state-of-the-art Red Bull Arena in 2020, and traded for U.S. women’s national teamers McCall Zerboni and Mallory Pugh during the draft. Add those two pieces to national team veteran Carli Lloyd, and it’s entirely possible that the team can finally shed its sad-sack fortunes.

Those fortunes were in contrast to how the Sky Blues entered into its life as a pro team in the days of WPS. In the first year of the league, 2009, the team sneaked into the playoffs by one point over the Boston Breakers, then took advantage of the “stepladder” format of the league, getting better every week until beating a well-rested (and rusty) Los Angeles Sol in the grand final.

More than a decade later, and after much heartbreak, is it possible that the supporters of this team will be on Cloud 9 once the league final is decided this summer?

Jan. 15, 2020 — The WNBA makes an aggressive move

Yesterday, it was announced that the WNBA and its player’s union had reached an accord on an eight-year collective bargaining agreement.

Though the league has been around since 1997, the league has been in a structural and financial quagmire. There are just 12 teams in the league, down from the peak of 16 teams in 2002.

The league started, and remains, a summer basketball league, one which has paid a lot less than many European and Asian league.

That is, until the new agreement. WNBA teams will now be able to fully compete for the best women’s talent around the world instead of feeling as though the are renting out their players to foreign leagues.

Too, the WNBA is finally spending money on travel and accommodations for its players. Time was, players in their first four years in the league were required to share a hotel room with a teammate. No longer.

Also, a player nursing a new baby would have to pay out-of-pocket in order to go on the road and get a private hotel room and bring along a family member or a nanny. But the new agreement gives new mothers a $5,000 stipend for child care.

Given the fact that the league is heading into its 24th season this spring, the one question that comes to mind is, “What took the WNBA so long to improve the working environment?”

Better late than never, I guess.

Jan. 14, 2020 — Game of the Decade

Presentation11. Towson Notre Dame Prep 10, Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.) 8
May 11, 2018
IAAM Class “A” Final
This matchup is notable for a couple of reasons. One, U.S. Lacrosse opened Tierney Field in Sparks, Md. to the IAAM for this championship final. But the second was the fact that the result ended of one of the most legendary and fabled records in the game: the 198-game win streak on the part of McDonogh. For the better part of nine seasons, McDonogh had been as automatic as the sun rising in the East. Thanks to skillful wins on the center draw, control of the pace and rhythm of the game, and the play of outstanding individuals, the Eagles had won every game since an April 2009 defeat to Canandaigua (N.Y.) Academy, but Notre Dame Prep was unafraid, withstanding everything the Eagles could throw at them, and never trailed at any point during the game.

Jan. 13, 2020 — An unprecedented punishment, but was it really necessary?

With one month until pitchers and catchers report for spring training, Major League Baseball is in a state of chaos.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred slapped an extremely heavy punishment on the Houston Astros, winners of two of the last three American League pennants, for an alleged cheating scandal that involved the stealing of catcher signals for individual pitches, then relaying information to the dugout so that an audible signal could be sent to the batsman.

The punishments for the scheme have been costly: manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year, the team’s former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman is going on baseball’s ineligible list, the club fined $5 million, and the top two draft picks in the next two entry drafts were revoked.

(The Astros later in the day fired both Hinch and Luhnow).

There has been every indication that Alex Cora, the current manager of the Boston Red Sox, may also be disciplined in this matter. As a bench coach in 2017, it is alleged that he was the mastermind behind the scheme.

Despite the heavy-handed punishments, no game results were overturned, no championships were vacated.

Cheating scandals have been part of baseball lore for a century and a half. Bribes were allowed in townball games. When the curveball was developed at Harvard, the university president, Charles Eliot, thought it necessary to address the issue of deception.

Sign-stealing is its own form of artistry, whether it is a man on second relaying signals to the batter (since he gets a front-row view of the signals), or number-crunchers trying to gain tendencies from the movement of the catcher to predict a certain pitch.

Heck, it was alleged in a newspaper story a few years ago that the 50s-era New York Giants would steal opposing signals in the Polo Grounds and relay information to the batter in the form of a series of lights.

Now, I’m not justifying the Astros in their cheating. I just want to point out a couple of things.

One, any cheating scheme like this would only affect 1/4 of a baseball team’s effort over the course of a season. The Astros only did this during home games, and only when they were at bat. The scheme is, of course, useless whenever the Astros were pitching, and (so far as we know) was never done in road ballparks.

Two, (and most important) the batter still had to try to hit the ball, something which is still pretty hard to do even in the best of circumstances. Indeed, there are many players regarded as one of the best to ever play the game, but have a failure rate of 70 percent in terms of putting the ball into play safely.

I get the fact that technology is threatening to upend a number of athletic competitions, everything from motorsports to the simple 100-yard dash.

But I’d like more information as to the edge that Houston got in being able to steal signs, and how batters were able to take advantage of the system.

Jan. 12, 2020 — Is the MIAA doubling its footprint, or halving its competitive balance?

A couple of days ago, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the commonwealth’s governing body for public school sports, released its proposal for statewide brackets for the sports it sanctions.

Gone will be the days of separate brackets for four regions, to be replaced by statewide brackets, meaning that a team from the Berkshires may have to travel to Cape Cod, and vice versa, every round, depending on how the seedings fall.

Those seedings would be determined by computer rankings by MaxPreps. The first four seeds in each division’s bracket would be seeded separately, meaning that a team with a weak regular-season schedule may not get one of the top four seeds, despite being undefeated.

But the headline-grabber for Massachusetts’ changes is the fact that, for both field hockey and girls’ lacrosse, the number of championships doubles from two to four.

Massachusetts is not the only region to have added championship levels in the last few years: the Virginia High School League, the Midwest Athletic Association, the California Interscholastic Federation’s San Diego Section, and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association have added postseason championships over the last five or so years.

Just from observation, the addition of these additional postseason tournaments has, for me, benefitted smaller schools. Elverson Twin Valley (Pa.), for example, won a state championship in 2015, and Poquoson (Va.) has made it to the state title game on more than one occasion since the changes to the VHSL tournament.

Now, I don’t have the exact enrollment numbers for the MIAA field hockey or lacrosse schools. But I have a feeling that the new championship will benefit programs in small towns all over the state such as Mashpee, Martha’s Vineyard, and Greenfield.

I also think it’s going to help teams in the western part of the state who have usually been in short brackets because there aren’t enough qualifying teams to fill out a 16-team sectional.

They’ll vote on the proposal next month; let’s see if enough administrators think it makes sense.