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Archive for Field hockey

May 12, 2022 — What have we learned from the Rise series?

Well, the U.S. U-18 Rise field hockey team is consistent. In the first two Tests against Canada this week at the Proving Grounds in Conshohocken, Pa., the States have run out 5-2 winners.

In each game, the States have shown some flashes of individual brilliance. There was a segment in Game 1 when U.S. center forward Lauren Kenah attacked along the baseline and appeared to melt through three opposing Canadian defenders. The States have scored on field goals as well as penalty corners, and have shown pretty good field generalship in the final third.

About the only thing you could fault the U.S. for are some pretty generous turnovers. One, on a bad set on a penalty corner, led to the first Canadian goal in the second Test. The ball went under the U.S. battery and Canada ran a perfect snowbird for the goal.

But the defense has had its moments, and will be looking to build on those moments and lessons learned in order to improve their careers at the next level.

For now, however, there will be two more games against Canada this week before the U-16s play for four games in Surrey, B.C. against the Young Leafs.

May 9, 2022 — A prescient story

It was in May 1995 when I first saw Christa Samaras on a lacrosse pitch. She completely took over an NCAA Division I semifinal against Dartmouth with her enthusiasm and relentless energy in a 13-8 win.

It turns out that day was the last time we would see Sarah Devens on a lacrosse field. Her own enthusiasm and relentless energy masked personal demons which would see her take her own life in July of that year.

Last week, Samaras was the subject for a Forbes Magazine story, detailing her own mental health struggles at the time. Reading her struggle against suicide is a complete shocker and eye-opener that one of the greatest female lacrosse players our country has ever produced almost never stepped on that world stage.

As far back as the early 90s, while attending Annapolis (Md.), she was looking for a way out, including trying to see if there was a gun in her household.

“If I had found one,” she tells Forbes, “it would have been over.”

In this month, set aside for mental health awareness, we’ve been reading numerous accounts of struggle on the part of not only female athletes, but just plain folks who have found the Global Pandemic Era one of extreme emotion and trauma.

The Samaras story has had me going back over a quarter-century of mental notes about people I have seen in the sports world. Were there frowns when I asked questions? Was there a quaver or tremor in a voice? Did the behavior of an athlete or coach change over time? Were there coaches who, while finding success on the pitch, were creating numerous individual mental health crises off it?

I have my own suppositions regarding the role of coaching in the downward spiral of athletes. In some of the support areas of the teams, if you brought up the name of a player who may have flunked out of school or had a drop in form that relegated them to the bench, the player was dismissed as either a “head case” or a “lost soul.”

As we are all learning from the examples of Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and other athletes who have either retired or withdrawn from competitions citing the need for a mental health break, the need for such a break has existed for long, long before.

I always observed, during the early 1990s in covering field hockey, that often the best goalkeepers were burnt-out soccer players. And I knew there were plenty of burnt-out soccer players who were going to camps and training events like the Olympic Development Program, all hoping to become the next Michelle Akers, Mary Harvey, or Lisa Gmitter (the U.S. right winger immediately before a legend named Mia Hamm came along).

I have seen different forms of what could be called abusive behavior. It wasn’t all about raised voices or raised hands, but commenting on appearance sometimes. I have seen more than one Division I athlete starve themselves and overtrain because their coach talked about a player’s baby fat.

And I have also seen overtraining like you wouldn’t believe. I once attended a week-long training camp for first-year students and walk-ons for a college field hockey program. The group numbered more than 60 at the start of the week, but were whittled down to about a dozen in about five days. It’s this kind of “survival of the fittest” which has often claimed promising players because of devastating lower-body injuries borne of overtraining, overstress, and dry, old-style artificial turf laid out on concrete.

Now, we’ve seen a major exodus in coaching in the last two years — not just in terms of field hockey or girls’ and women’s lacrosse, but in sports overall. Great leaders such as Mike Krzyzewski, Anne Horton, John Savage, C. Vivian Stringer, Laurie Berger, Jay Wright, and Karen Doxey have walked away from their coaching positions in the last few months.

I understand that some of them may be seeing the evils of the NLI on the horizon. It’s gotten to the point where high-school students are now receiving money to endorse products like athletic wear.

And maybe, just maybe, these coaches are looking for a mental-health break of their own, given the pressure to build on past success.

May 8, 2022 — Parallels on the banks of the Raritan

Last fall, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division I field hockey tournament was a team that came out of nowhere. That team was Rutgers, a team which had played in only two NCAA Tournaments before head coach Meredith Civico came to the program. Under Civico, the Knights parlayed their Big Ten success into a deep postseason run in 2021, winding up a shootout goal away from a Final Four.

Friday night, the Rutgers women’s lacrosse team had a performance befitting its sisters on the field hockey side. The Scarlet Knights, who had played exactly one NCAA Tournament game before head coach Melissa Lehman came to the team, has seemingly earned at least an at-large berth in the 2022 tournament with a 13-5 Big Ten semifinal win over third-ranked Northwestern.

So, what have Civico and Lehman found in their coaching journeys in New Brunswick?

Both coaches have recruited exceptionally well, especially in the state of New Jersey, where lacrosse and field hockey have been strong at the youth level. Civico’s field hockey program has players from powerful teams like Medford Lakes Shawnee (N.J.), Voorhees Eastern (N.J.), and West Long Branch Shore Regional (N.J.), all of which are amongst the very best in terms of winning state champions.

The same can be said for the lacrosse team, which has the likes of Moorestown (N.J.), Tabernacle Seneca (N.J.), Mountain Lakes (N.J.), Ridgewood (N.J.), and Haddonfield (N.J.) Memorial.

At the same time, however, both coaches have also recruited strategically from other places. Civico’s field hockey team boasts players from New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Argentina, Holland, and Germany. Lehman’s laxers feature players from the Philadelphia Main Line, Australia, Florida, and four players from Long Island.

And both coaches have taken their diverse rosters and made it work beautifully.

May 1, 2022 — A “mayday” call

It was about 100 years ago when Frederick Stanley Mockford, a radio officer for a small airfield in Croydon, England, wanted to devise a universal code that airline pilots coming from Le Bourget Airport in Paris could use to indicate an emergency.

There was already the technology of the telegraph, which already had its own emergency code: SOS. But aircraft of the time did not have telegraphs on board; they had radios.

By 1923, “Mayday,” a portmanteau of “M’aidez” or “Help me” in French, was introduced as the emergency word for flights across the English channel. To this day, pilots of small private aircraft, Air Force airmen, and jumbo jet captains use the term in case of an extreme emergency of some type.

Today, I’m sounding a “mayday” distress call on behalf of the game of field hockey in the United States.

When this site started in 1998, the game, in relation to sports played by women in the United States, was not in a bad place. The U.S. women’s national team was only four years removed from a bronze-medal performance in the 1994 World Cup and finished third a year later in the FIH Champions Trophy.

The national team was fed by about 1,900 high schools and about 75 NCAA Division I college programs. There was also a post-collegiate circuit, the United Airlines League, which brought together a selection of national-team players, age-group national-teamers, and college stars to compete for honors and future selection opportunities.

Fast forward to today. There are about 1,950 high schools playing the sport and 79 Division I programs. There is, however, no post-collegiate league; there is an ad-hoc women’s national championship which brings together a number of top players for one week to compete.

The lack of post-collegiate competition shows: the U.S. women’s national team program has, for the first time, failed to qualify for two consecutive FIH world-level tournaments — the 2020 Olympics and 2022 World Cup. Too, the U.S. is just one point off the bottom of the table in the FIH Pro League.

But deeper than this, I think, is the fact that the American hockey culture has been unable to deal with its original sin: placing obstacles in the way of an entire gender to play the game.

Men’s field hockey has existed in its own small bubble as an adult Sunday league sport in the northeast U.S., but aside from a small experimental league a decade ago in the San Diego area, the men’s game has not caught on at the varsity level at any American school, college, or university.

Now, I’m not saying that the immediate institution of boys’ and men’s field hockey is going to cure every ill through which the game is suffering. It might be a start, however.

The key to the future of American field hockey is, frankly, sponsorship and resources. Right now, the U.S. women have been going into Pro League games without a sponsor like CitiBank or Glo on the front of its kit. During the global pandemic, USA Field Hockey applied for, and received, a PPP loan for $2.19 million.

Other resources are coming down the pike as the women’s national team have settled down in North Carolina. Reports say that an enormous recreational complex is being planned for the United States Performance Center in Kannapolis, N.C., a place which is also a human performance center.

But this is just for one level of the U.S. program. There needs to be competition available for both genders, at different age and ability levels, from coast to coast.

It is a hard ask, given the fact that recreational sports for adults in the United States — everything from softball to bowling to cycling — have been in decline in this country for varying reasons.

It’s going to take a lot of money, time, and effort. But I think it’s also going to take a kind of charismatic populism to bring the sport into a more public consciousness.

Think of it: who are the most famous people in the world who have played field hockey? Now, I’m not asking about who are the world’s most famous field hockey players; instead, we’re asking about celebrities who have competed in the game of field hockey.

Three women come to my mind: Kate Middleton (now the Dutchess of Cambridge), actress Emma Watson, and supermodel Hilary Rhoda. But I’m sure there are plenty of others in our popular culture who had a love of the sport — politicians, persons in industry, and financiers.

It’s these kinds of people who need to be harnessed in order to get the game out of this tailspin.

April 25, 2022 — Meanwhile, on that other competition surface …

The United States women’s field hockey team, in search of long-term form, success, and goals, finally found some yesterday in an FIH Pro League match against an England team against which the States have measured themselves for the last 102 years.

The game was decided in a 3-1 shootout in favor of England after a 2-2 draw, but it so easily could have been a three-point win at the second of two Tests at Karen Shelton Stadium on the weekend. The Americans had taken a 2-0 lead into the fourth quarter before Pippa Lock and Sophie Hamilton tied the match within 10 minutes.

In the shootout, only Erin Matson was able to find the back of the cage, while the Lions got goals from Hamilton, Isabelle Petter, and Elena Rayer.

The result pulls the United States off the bottom rung of the Pro League, oddly enough, still only four points behind England. China, which has played a scant two games in this Pro League cycle, remains in the cellar.

April 18, 2022 — The (inverse) way forward

Today, the FIH unveiled the formula for qualification for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

The often-obtuse world governing body of the sport of field hockey has cooked up a new way to qualify for the Olympics. Aside from host France and the five continental championships, the other half of the field is going to be filled in a diametrically opposed way from the way it was four years ago.

Instead of having six two-team qualification ties, there are going to be two six-team tournaments, with only the top three in each of these tourneys making it to France.

The six-team tournaments will only be filled after the five continental champions are determined. The number of teams from each continental federation will be determined based on the world rankings for each gender as of Jan. 31 of next year.

This means that, for the U.S. men’s field hockey team, the only route into the Olympics is through the Pan American Games, given the fact that the United States is ranked 24th, and is the third-ranked Pan American Hockey Federation team in the current men’s World Rankings. For the U.S. to make it into the six-team qualifiers, the States will have to find a way to get to somewhere around 18th place in the world rankings to get in.

For the U.S. women, the United States will have a safety valve if they don’t beat Argentina. The U.S. is currently ranked 13th in the world, and there are four PAHF teams in the top 18 in world rankings. This means that, even if the U.S. team finishes as low as fourth in next year’s Pan Am Games, the Americans can make the qualifiers if enough Top 18 teams qualify automatically.

On the women’s side, the only team which could spoil the formula is France’s women’s team, which is currently 28th. The FIH’s press release last week, however, mentioned that France’s women have qualified because they had temporarily held a Top 25 slot sometime after the 2020 Olympics.

I’ll be interested to see how the France situation affects the seedings for the two last-chance qualifiers.

April 13, 2022 — Mid-pack, again

With yesterday’s 3-2 loss to South Africa, the U.S. junior national team finished eighth in the 2022 FIH Women’s Junior World Cup.

That is, eighth out of 15 teams, exactly in the middle of the pack.

It’s a place that past U.S. junior teams have known well. Since 2005, the team has finished either in seventh or eighth place in the standings.

This means that, in the last five editions of the tournament, the United States has wound up in the seventh-place game. The mechanisms have differed: in 2005 and 2009, the States did not have a quarterfinal game, but were eliminated in a secondary group stage and were sent to the 5th-through-8th bracket.

But in the last three iterations of the Junior World Cup, the States made the quarterfinals, only to lose their next two games in each of the competitions to fall to the seventh-place match.

QFL 2-0 to ArgentinaL 2-0 to ArgentinaL 2-1 to England
ClassL 4-1 to AustraliaL 2-1 to BelgiumL 2-0 to Argentina
7-8W 4-2 to South AfricaL 3-1 to EnglandL 3-2 to South Africa

Now, the glib amongst us can simply say that avoiding Argentina is the key to Junior World Cup success. But I think it’s a lot more than this.

The U.S. program does tend to spend a lot of time and on the Junior World Cup effort. The expenditures for U-19 events such as the Nexus tournament, the indoor and outdoor national tournaments, and the National Club Championship are all intended to identify the most talented for international duty.

But even with greats with international levels of skill and game play on the rosters of our junior national team, the States cannot seem to get out of the same pattern: be good enough to get out of group play, only to fall to the “fair to middling” classification.

April 11, 2022 — BULLETIN: The United States taking on its fourth post-Rio head coach

Since the end of the Rio Olympics, the United States women’s field hockey team has tumbled in the world rankings to its current rating of 15th, and has failed for the first time to qualify for two consecutive world-level tournaments for the first time since 1978.

And now, the U.S. senior women’s national team has announced today its fourth coaching change since January 2017, as Greg Drake was announced as the team’s new coach, replacing Anthony Farry, who had not been with the team during its first four Tests of 2022 in the FIH Pro League.

Drake had worked alongside Farry for the Japanese women’s national team before his shock move from the Cherry Blossoms to work with the United States shortly after the 2020 Olympics were postponed a year.

Drake has a monstrous task ahead of him. The American side is at the bottom of the table at of the World League and play at Argentina at the weekend. After that are two match weekends at the University of North Carolina against England and Belgium.

Yep, you read that right. The States will be playing their next four games at a place other than Bessant Field at Queens University Charlotte.

Then again, it’s getting to be a thing, with the United States changing home grounds as often as their head coach the last few years.

April 8, 2022 — England 2, USA 1

Throughout the history of American women’s history in field hockey, meetings with England at key junctures of major tournaments has been a recurring theme. As the narrative goes, the United States senior women’s national team played its first international match against England, a 16-0 defeat in 1920. It took 42 years for the States to get at least a draw against the Lions.

Today, the junior national teams took up the fight in the quarterfinal of the 2022 FIH Junior World Cup. The stakes were high: England and the States were playing for a Final Four berth. The Americans were playing not only for a chance at a medal, but for a guarantee of finishing higher than any U.S. side at a JWC in the history of the tournament.

While American hopes were high with teenage sensation Ashley Sessa scoring a dream goal in the first minutes, the English side pulled level before the half. The Lions scored a second in the dying seconds of the third quarter, the difference in a 2-1 win.

While England moves onto the last four, the Americans have a tough task in the next classification game, having to take on the loser of Argentina-Germany to try to get into the fifth-place game.

Now, go look back at the second clause of the last paragraph. Only one of these two countries — Argentina or Germany — will be playing for a medal in this championship. Those are two nations which have not only three Junior World Cups between them, they have medaled nine times.

It is, indeed, an upside-down Junior World Cup.

April 4, 2022 — Playing in the upper half, for a change

Today, with a 4-0 win over Canada, the United States U-21 women’s national field hockey team will be playing in the upper half of the classification bracket of the 2022 Junior World Cup in South Africa.

It’s a pretty big deal, since the United States can now finish no lower than eighth in the standings. Indeed, the States are, with a big effort against England on Friday in the quartefinal round, could make the Final Four.

It’s a heady status for a U.S. program which has seen itself bruised on the world stage in recent years. The senior team has failed to qualify for two consecutive FIH world-level tournaments for the first time since the sport was added to the Olympic program in 1980.

The junior team, for its part, barely squeaked into the World Cup thanks to a shootout win over Chile in the bronze-medal match after an uncharacteristic loss to Uruguay. And yet, the States are going to the quarterfinals, while Pan American junior champion Canada is being sent to the consolation half of the bracket, and can finish no better than ninth in the World Cup.

Of course, people are going to be remembering this Junior World Cup for the teams which aren’t participating, such as Australia and New Zealand, but also for a resurgent Argentina side which has taken its chance after losing out on direct qualification to the World Cup. The junior Albiceleste side currently leads its pool with a game to play against Uruguay. That’s an interesting match in itself, because if Argentina wins this South American derby, and if Korea beats Austria in their final pool match, Uruguay drops into the lower half of the classification bracket as well.

Yep, this means that the top two in the Pan American Junior Cup could be guaranteed to finish lower in the standings against the third-place finisher in the standings and an Argentina team which didn’t have its first-choice lineup because of the Coronavirus.

Guess it goes to show that anything can happen in field hockey.