TopOfTheCircle.com

Serving the scholastic field hockey and lacrosse community since 1998

July 1, 2020 — What the shutdown of minor-league baseball portends for the rest of the sporting world

Yesterday, a network of pro sports teams numbering more than 260 stretching from Maine to California, and Canada to Mexico decided not to play out its season.

Professional baseball clubs across North America in the minor leagues have been developing players for major-league clubs for nearly 120 years. They have become opportunities for economic development in towns from coast to coast, and have been engines for economic development in places that have seen hard times.

They have entertained generations of baseball fans and have captured the imagination through not only the ability to see players before they make major-league rosters, but sometimes through creative promotions having to do with food, movies, and Santa Claus.

But with yesterday’s announcement, all of that is gone. The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, are likely to continue, especially seeing that there were plans for professional baseball to slough off some 40 teams, which will eventually leave 40 small towns in the lurch.

Now, what does this have to do with field hockey and lacrosse? Everything.

We have noticed that a number of universities have made plans to not have college sports this fall, including Bowdoin, Williams, Rensselaer, and The College of New Jersey. Others have cut programs; a Sports Illustrated cover story counted some 80 teams cut in all levels of college athletics.

In the schools, at least three states — Delaware, Michigan, and Ohio — have floated plans to try to move fall activities to next spring, something which could place undue stress on campus facilities. Imagine, for example, a single school’s lacrosse, field hockey, and soccer teams (including JV and freshman programs) having to share a single acre of grass.

Given the frightening rise in Coronavirus cases in the last two weeks, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for a full fall season at any level of field hockey until there is widespread testing, treatment, and vaccine availability.

Let’s see what the 150 research groups around the world can come up with.

June 30, 2020 — The State of Lacrosse, 2020

The 2020 domestic American lacrosse season started with such promise, developed into an interesting turn or two — and then, the void left behind by the global Coronavirus pandemic.

In truth, the 2020 season began all the way back on Aug. 1, with the United States’ participation in the FIL U-19 Women’s World Championship.

Actually, let’s rephrase that. The U.S. team didn’t participate; it dominated.

The Americans, now feeding into the college-eligible player pool and coached by Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte-Hiller, won the gold medal by sweeping all seven games in pool and knockout play. On the way to doing so, the States won 27 out of the 28 quarters of play, only allowing Australia to tie them 1-1 in the fourth quarter of the tournament opener.

Leading the way for the States were attacking midfielder Caitlyn Wurzburger (21 goals, 19 assists), center Maddie Jenner (92 draw controls, including 61 to herself), Izzy Scane (21 goals) and Isabella Smith (19). The defense, oddly enough, only had to cause 37 turnovers as a team in seven matches, because the U.S. goalie tandem of Madison Doucette and Rachel Hall were, collectively, lights out. They stopped some 70 percent of all opposing shot attempts.

The players in the U.S. side returned to their teams for the spring, and the start of the season was all full of new possibilities.

Much of the Division I chatter was about how the finalists in NCAA Division I — Maryland and Boston College — would fare. Boston College, after graduating talismanic attackers Kenzie Kent, Dempsey Arsenault, and Sam Apuzzo, was able to bolster its offensive cupboard by getting former Duke forward Charlotte North through the transfer portal.

The Eagles, however, stumbled out of the gate, losing to the University of Massachusetts. The team would recover to finish its truncated schedule at 4-3.

For Maryland’s part, the Terrapins went into the season with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. Not a single member of the Inside Lacrosse Women preseason all-star team came from the defending NCAA champions.

Oddly enough, the team’s slow start seemingly justified the snub. Maryland lost its first home game in many years when it dropped a one-goal decision to Florida, then was 10-goalled by the University of North Carolina. A further home defeat to Syracuse made the Terps look in on itself to try to improve. That improvement was coming, with Maryland pulling itself to a 3-3 record at the time the global pandemic ground everything to a halt.

Those three defeats, however, were not to slouches. North Carolina was seemingly on its way to a Final Four appearance with its seamless and smooth offense, led by Jamie Ortega (32 goals), with Katie Hoeg and Scottie Rose Crowney putting in 22 apiece.

Florida, for its part, was able to win its first two games by a goal apiece, but curiously fell by 11 goals to Loyola on February 22. And for its part, Syracuse was developing a great run of form in running out to a 7-1 start.

Another team that was likely to make a Final Four run was Notre Dame. The Irish, after a decade and a half of hanging in the hedgerows of national championship conversation, started the season 7-0, including a win at Northwestern.

In the American scholastic universe, only a handful of states had begun play in February and March. Amongst the most prominent of these were Orlando Lake Highland Prep (Fla.), which started 6-0 and outscored its opposition 110-19.

Also, there was a good story coming from the West Coast. La Jolla (Calif.) started its season 5-0 thanks to the coaching of former Florida stars Kitty Cullen and Sam Farrell. The Vikings vaulted into the national conversation with an 11-7 win over Carlsbad La Costa Canyon (Calif.).

Another team to keep an eye on, of course, was Delray American Heritage (Fla.). The Stallions bolted out to an 8-0 start and were set to meet Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.) in a showdown on Saturday, March 14.

But by then, the global contagion had put travel, sports, and even normal everyday activities on the back burner.

Since then, there were rumblings that some states, including Virginia, might start up in early June, but that never happened. It’s unknown when the sport — or any scholastic sport — will return in the absence of widespread testing, effective treatments, and a vaccine to promote “herd immunity.”

June 29, 2019 — Notes on the end of the domestic lacrosse season

Around this time of year, this site would normally be cribbing together a number of stories chronicling what happened in the scholastic girls’ season.

But we’re not in a position to do that, given the fact that only a few hundred games were played in pockets of the country, with the balance of games (indeed, just about every game after March 15th) were cancelled because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s hardly fair to try to choose the best players or coaches from this past season when most high-school teams across America never wielded a stick in anger.

We can, however, point out things where credit is due.

The leading goal-scorer for the shortened 2020 season is, like last year, from the Sunbelt. Katherine Lipford, a senior from Vestavia Hills (Ala.), had 78 goals in 11 matches. In addition, Jaylee Ault of Altamonte Springs Lake Brantley (Fla.) led the nation in assists with 47.

But second in assists (from sources we know of) was Caitlyn Wurzburger, the explosively talented attacker from Delray American Heritage (Fla.). With her 39 assists as well as 36 goals, she reached an as-yet-unreached star.

Wurzburger, in her six-year varsity career, is the single occupant of the 500-goal, 500-assist club. She had 503 goals and 524 assists in a career which saw her not only win a U-19 World Cup gold medal and a Florida state title, but she also had a hand in rewriting NCAA recruiting rules, a saga which has been recounted previously.

But there were more things that occurred in girls’ and women’s lacrosse in 2020, some of which we’ll try to document in The State of Lacrosse tomorrow.

June 26, 2020 — A second major field hockey program will not be playing this fall

This afternoon, Kathryn Foster, the president of The College of New Jersey, sent out a message regarding measures that the Division III college will be taking to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A major portion of the message had to do with the cancellation of high-attendance, high-density events such as Homecoming, theater, and most intercollegiate sports, including football, soccer, basketball, and field hockey.

The loss of a 2020 field hockey season at TCNJ has a number of implications for a long-running program which has won 11 national championships since 1981.

For one, head coach Sharon Pfluger won’t be coaching a TCNJ Lions team for the first time since the spring of 1998, when she handed off the coaching reins to Jennifer Hart.

Also, the Lions won’t get a chance to redeem themselves after losing in the octofinal round of last year’s Division III title to a Franklin & Marshall side that eventually lost the national final by one goal.

But I think this decision is going to affect the seniors on this team the most. They were the ones who were likely putting in the extra roadwork, the extra stick skills, the extra video study to put themselves in a position to win a national title.

This decision, along with Bowdoin’s decision to cancel intercollegiate sports for the 2020 calendar year, enervates the level of play in NCAA Division III; both of these programs have been amongst the elite for the last decade and a half and both would, I think, have been hot favorites to take home the gold plaque at Sprague Field at Montclair State University this November.

But with record Coronavirus cases this week, especially in Americans under the age of 35, I wonder how many college field hockey teams — at any level — will be able to take to the pitch this fall.

June 25, 2020 — Too early? Yep.

Yesterday saw 36,880 new COVID-19 cases nationwide.

Now, you may have been numbed by the numbers that have been reported by various sources, but let me refocus you on the implications of yesterday’s total.

The 36,880 is the most in a single day.

This has happened even as several populous states, such as Texas, Florida, California, and New York have been easing restrictions on the opening of businesses and the gathering of large groups.

But as we have seen now in the sports world, those decisions are coming back to bite the decisionmakers. You have members of several sports teams having to curtail their activities as we told you earlier this week. There are also a number of Secret Service agents in President Trump’s security detail from last weekend’s rally in Oklahoma who are having to quarantine because of positive tests.

If there’s anything that this episode should tell elected officials and public health professionals, it’s that the Coronavirus is still spreading, and it’s incumbent upon people to not get too overconfident.

After all, the life you save might be your own.

And it’s going to remain that way until there is testing, treatment, and a vaccine.

June 24, 2020 — A closure for a different reason

This week, women’s professional softball, an enterprise which has been lagging a bit in the last five years when it comes to membership, was supposed to have restarted with a seven-game exhibition between two former National Professional Fastpitch sides.

One, the USSSA Pride, is the current NPF champions, but was not scheduled to play in the league this summer. The other, the Houston Scrap Yard Dawgs, was set to join the league this summer before it was announced that the league would not be playing because of the worldwide Coronavirus contagion.

Monday, the two teams played the first game. But during the game, the Scrap Yard Dawgs general manager, Connie May, sent out a tweet in support of President Trump’s hard-line stance on standing for the national anthem before every game.

Former U.S. softball gold medalist Monica Abbott wasn’t having any of it.

“The tweet sent out by Connie May on the ScrapYardFP account in no way reflects the athletes in this organization,” she said in a statement after the game. “It sure as heck doesn’t represent my feelings and I can’t believe a company I am supposed to represent would do something like this. I’m in shock. I believe softball to be an inclusive sport (and) any shape, size or color can be good at this game. But it doesn’t mean that the organization believes the same. Being blindsided, with a tweet like this in the middle of the game, is the (utmost) disrespect to my Black teammates, all athletes, and supporters. And this is not acceptable.”

Teammate Cat Osterman tweeted out a similar message.

“I do not support the comments made during our game by ScrapyardFP and I will not represent them,” Osterman said. “We as a people are working towards change, and this is not it.”

As a result, there was a massive player walkout Monday night. We haven’t gotten a read on how many of the team members cleared out their lockers, but one report has already said that the entire team quit.

Softball is, like a number of women’s team sports, trying to not only become more professional in its top ranks, but trying to become more diverse overall. You were hard-pressed to find any minorities in the sport until players like Lisa Fernandez, Scia Maumasolo, Crystl Bustos, and Katrina Watley started dotting pro and national team rosters.

The actions of the Scrap Yard Dawg team members have shone a light on the institutional bias found in the softball community, and I think there are a number of athletic institutions who could wind up being the next example.

June 23, 2020 — A first domino?

Yesterday, it was announced that Bowdoin College, a small liberal-arts college in Maine, would not be participating in intercollegiate athletics for the 2020 fall season, and that no team would engage in any sort of in-person training until at least January 1.

“Athletics is a central part of the Bowdoin experience for many of our students and for the College more generally,” Bowdoin president Clayton Rose said in a statement. “NESCAC (the New England Small College Athletic Conference) has not yet determined what will happen with conference play or how coaches in this extraordinary semester may interact with athletes on fall, winter, and spring teams during the fall semester, but I am hopeful that there will be significant opportunities this fall for coaches to work with those athletes who are both on and off campus. Varsity athletes living on campus are likely to have in-person workout opportunities with coaches, but unfortunately, students living off campus will not be permitted to participate in on-campus workouts.”

Bowdoin is just one of nearly 1,300 NCAA member institutions nationwide, and is, from a sports economics standpoint, a tiny player compared to universities with big-time sports programs such as Alabama, North Carolina, Penn State, and Duke.

Yet, this one pebble is being dropped into an enormous ocean of uncertainty, with elements of public health, liability, and, frankly, people’s lives.

Indeed, the average person does not, and cannot understand what the decisionmaking process is unless you are on staff at a university.

One of my sisters is such a person. I had a phone call with her shortly after the start of spring break, and the COVID-19 contagion was uppermost in the mind of everyone on campus.

“Typically,” she said, “we get more outbreaks of colds and flu after people return from break, because they bring their germs from all over the country and around the world. We’re a giant petri dish.”

Unlike some other universities, there are not going to be any program cuts, and there will also not be any furloughs of athletic staff, coaches, or administrators.

For a number of Bowdoin teams, especially the college’s women’s basketball team looking to improve on its second-place finish in the NCAA Division III Tournament, the pandemic, regrettably, will affect their seasons by no fault of their own.

And I don’t think it’s over.

BULLETIN: June 22, 2020 — An entire team opts out of returning

This afternoon, it was reported that the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League was not going to participate in this year’s NWSL Challenge Cup, scheduled to start this Saturday in Utah.

The tournament was meant to be the opener for team sports’ reopening in North America, but 10 positive tests — six players and four staff — have apparently put the brakes on that.

“While we were all looking forward to seeing the Pride return to the field, we are unfortunately facing a decision that is necessary and in the best interest for the health of our players and staff,” Orlando team doctor Daryl Osbahr tells The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I commend the club for its diligence and reaction following the initial positive test, as well as how the safety of players and staff was prioritized during this difficult and uncertain time. However, the guidelines and process that are put in place, including the important protocols and timelines for contact tracing, make it logistically impossible for the club to participate in the Challenge Cup in Utah.”

Osbahr was part of the NWSL medical team that set out protocols for the nine (now eight) teams competing this summer at the Utah Royals’ facilities.

June 22, 2020 — A significant hurdle to “reopening”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of most of the United States 100 days ago, there have been a number of organizations hell-bent on reopening.

But, as we’ve learned from the uptick in Coronavirus cases in many places where bars, restaurants, and beaches have been allowed to open, the virus is still out there, and is still lethal.

The sports world has been cautiously reopening, with the PGA Tour, the German Bundesliga, the Premier League, NASCAR, and La Liga (amongst others) holding events without fans and with a number of safeguards.

Sports has had to tread a fine line between making a decision which makes sense from a business standpoint and having that decision set a poor example for the general population.

In the United States, we’ve already had one NASCAR official, a member of D.C. United, a handful of hockey players, and several Philadelphia Phillies test positive for the virus. Frankly, this tells me that we’re not ready, as a country, to safely reopen a lemonade stand, much less a $1.7 billion entity such as the National Football League.

For perspective on this, I urge you to read this story from the Tampa Bay Times, which brings in a very important angle on reopening: liability for sickness and/or death.

I think liability issues will permeate the discussion on college campuses and at school board meetings more than anywhere else. Schools and colleges require meeting and assembly in common buildings and classrooms, and social distancing is a definite problem in this environment.

I had a conversation with my sister a week before the COVID-19 lockdown in mid-March, and she had a definite perspective on this, being a staff member for a university in Maine. She saw that coming back from spring break, where all of the students were off campus and either at home or on travel, would create a petri dish of germs and viruses on campus, a trend she has seen for years amongst her students.

The “rush to play” is very much a rush, one which could cost thousands more lives. And frankly, we’re not going to be ready to play unless we have the testing, the treatment for people already infected, and a safe and effective vaccine.

June 21, 2020 — Dear Papa

Dear Papa:

On this Father’s Day, I decided to write you a note, even though you’re likely looking at all of us through the omniscient lens of The Great Beyond.

It’s been five years since you died, and about three and a half years since we sold the house. I’m sure you understand that I couldn’t stay in that old place while my career was 200 miles south.

This year, me and the rest of humanity are facing an existential crisis which is pretty much of our own making. The denials of three large national governments as well as the willful ignorance of people in charge has led to an overspread of COVID-19 throughout the entire world, killing a half-million people.

My sister has been an absolute rock star through all this, running a Coronavirus testing tent in front of the hospital and, hopefully, saving lives in her area.

My brother has moved down to the plot of land you bought oh, so many years ago in Jumpoff, and now has a nice house and a deer-proof garden. You would have loved that had you and Mom decided to liquidate everything and move before age and illness prevented you from doing so.

Me, I feel incredibly lucky to still be working. Our office has to process a lot of forms over the course of a week, and we still need to do them. We also improved our process by combing through our information database and getting rid of duplicate entries.

I don’t go out but a couple of times a week, just to get groceries. As such, my commuting costs are way down, and I’m saving a lot of money for that rainy day.

At the same time, however, I have developed something in common with you: I was diagnosed with prostate cancer about the time that the contagion started affecting lives nationwide. I have had one surgery already, and am expecting one more sometime by the end of summer.

But I’m reasonably confident that, like you, I can beat this. As you once said a while back, “I have cancer, but it does not have me.”

I am not terribly worried about myself. I worry about others, including a lot of my friends. They are musicians, artists, artisans, models, and costumers, and only a few of them have a secondary income to feed themselves and their families.

While I’m sure your omniscience will tell you what our ultimate destiny will be, I’m not planning on seeing you and Mom and Raul very soon. Instead, I’m hoping Mom is giving you an earful up there.

Very truly yours,
Al