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Sept. 27, 2020 — The Marshall Plan

One week from tomorrow, the Eastern Camden County Regional School District, an area encompassing the towns of Voorhees, Gibbsboro, and Berlin in southern New Jersey, starts implementing its next phase of reopening its classrooms for in-person learning for the 2020-2021 academic year.

By then, the Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) field hockey team will have played its opening Olympic Conference match against Medford Lakes Shawnee (N.J.).

This team, this program, this dynasty called the Eastern Vikings has had two decades like no other. Their success is wrapped up in astounding, unthinkable, and unforgettable numbers. The team has won 21 straight state championships in field hockey, and was named the top field hockey team in the country nine times.

Eastern, as a team, has scored more than 200 goals in a season nine times. Seven times in the last 11 years, the nation’s leading goal-scorer wore an Eastern jersey. The school boasted the first 300-goal scorer in Austyn Cuneo, and the player with the most career shutouts, Alana Barry.

But the 2020 season is going to be a transition like no other. After last year’s Group IV championship season, head coach Danyle Heilig announced her retirement from scholastic coaching, turning her focus to the Uprise field hockey club. In addition, the entire landscape of school sports and everyday life have been upset by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Into this situation steps Alexandra Marshall, the team’s assistant coach the past five years.

“I know what Eastern hockey is all about. I know what what the expectations are in this program, this school, and this community. And I’ve had a great mentor for five years,” she says. “So, it’s not difficult for me to go out on the field, though I’m the one who is running practices now. It’s the same field, the same girls, the same administration, and the same support system that I’m used to. The pandemic stuff is what I have to pinch myself to get used to, but everything is business as usual here at Eastern.”

Marshall has had a pair of major coaching influences in her life. Aside from working alongside Heilig for five seasons, she was a student-athlete at The College of New Jersey. There, she was coached by NCAA Hall of Champions member Sharon Pfluger.

While not as outwardly demonstrative as her predecessor, Marshall is very much a take-charge coach who leads practices and pregame warmups through example, warms up the goalies, and is constantly coaching up team members on the sidelines.

“I like talking at those end-of-quarter breaks and at halftime,” Marshall says. “I’m on the quieter side; and would rather pull players aside and talk to them individually. I’ve had the chance to see the best in action, and have tried to pull from what I’ve learned.”

You’d think that Marshall has developed more of an analytical style through the Pfluger influence, but she’s gotten that style through more than one source.

“Coach Heilig was more analytical than most people think,” she says. “I think they’re similar in the way they prepare, their expectations of their players, and the way they hold themselves to that higher expectation.”

Marshall, importantly, has been able to adapt one of Pfluger’s truisms to the situation at hand in 2020. That truism, which has been used by many championship coaches such as U.S. Soccer’s Jill Ellis and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, is that a championship team isn’t trying to defend a previous championship in a subsequent year, but instead is looking forward to winning the next championship and creating a positive history with the next group of players.

“We had a lot of graduating seniors last year,” Marshall says. “We do have a strong group returning, but we have a lot of new players this year. We still have high expectations of each other and the coaching staff. We’re willing to work and we’re practicing hard. Anything it takes to get to that number 22.”

Yep, 22 — but not when it comes to state championships.

Owing to the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic, the goal for Eastern is a Group IV South title, since the state tournament has been truncated this year for the first time since the early 1970s. There are also no out-of-state games on the Viking schedule and only a bare handful of games out of the Olympic conference.

But the players on the team have been working together since July 13, according to Marshall, under Phase 1 restrictions when it comes to masks and distancing during training.

“It’s not going to be the same as usual, and we have to make some sacrifices,” Marshall says. “We’re willing to do what it takes to have a season, and at the end of the day, they’re want to be on the field together. And if that’s what they have to do to get there, that’s what they’re going to do.”

Sept. 26, 2020 — Profiling a legend

Tom Rimback, the field hockey and lacrosse writer for The Burlington County Times, is one of the senior field hockey writers in the United States.

This fall, the editors at his paper decided to expand coverage of scholastic sports beyond Burlington County.

And the American scholastic sports community are the better for it. Read his profile of Millville (N.J.) coach Claudia McCarthy, one of the few scholastic field hockey coaches to have coached 50 years.

Sept. 25, 2020 — The year of the about-face?

This week, while the number of new daily Coronavirus cases still is about 45,000 per day, there have been a number of sports competitions which, after having declared their initial intentions to postpone play this fall, have gone back on their original decision.

This week has seen both the Big Ten Conference and, yesterday, the Pac 12, declare their intention to play football this fall.

Additionally, a number of state high school associations have backtracked on their original plans this week, including Delaware, Rhode Island, Colorado (for football only), and, yesterday, Maryland.

The Maryland return to play plan is going to be an interesting one to watch. That’s because two of the first county school districts to declare their intention to postpone fall sports in the country are two of the largest: Montgomery and Prince George’s County.

There are 11 others which are declaring themselves ready for bringing back athletics by the start date of Oct. 7: the county school systems of Allegany, Anne Arundel, Calvert, Carroll, Charles, Cecil, Frederick, Garrett, St. Mary’s, Washington and Worcester Counties.

But there are a number of others with field hockey teams of great history which have not declared whether they are coming back this fall. This includes Howard County (which includes the likes of Glenelg) and Baltimore County (Hereford).

In other words, Maryland is going to be like New York and Massachusetts, in that there is going to be a patchwork in these states, with some teams playing field hockey in the fall, and others in the so-called “Spring 1” season.

Stay tuned. This could get interesting.

Sept. 24, 2020 — The addition of a Division II field hockey team in Tennessee adds to a southern spread

Lincoln Memorial University is a small liberal arts college located in Harrogate, Tenn., a village of about 4,400 located about a mile from the border with Kentucky right next to Cumberland Gap National Park.

Today, the school announced that it would become the eighth member of the South Atlantic Conference Carolinas field hockey league, joining the likes of Limestone, Queens College of Charlotte, Coker, Converse, and Mount Olive.

This Division II conference has expanded significantly in the last decade, and, with shrewd recruiting and good coaching, could very well develop at least one sure-fire contender for national honors.

Now, we’ve seen a “southern strategy” for field hockey expansion for a number of years, but it must be said here that this Division II change is one which substitutes for a university which is leaving. Bellarmine, a college in Louisville, has shown its intention to leave Division II for the Atlantic Sun Conference in Division I in most sports, albeit for the Mid-American Conference in field hockey.

So, it is very much a “like for like” shift. It’s my hope that more schools around the SACC footprint will add the game.

Sept. 22, 2020 — The lack of a true “bubble”

One of the reasons that the NHL, NBA, NWSL, MLS, and (save for last weekend) the WNBA seasons have run out their seasons without much of a hit from the Coronavirus pandemic is the concept of a “bubble,” or a neutral location in which everyone who enters — players, coaches, game officials, news media, support staff — are quarantined before entry, tested upon entry, and subject to more testing at the site of competition.

The problem is, it’s impractical to institute a “bubble” in many situations. Teams traveling from location to location, such as players in pro baseball, pro football, and the various teams as U.S. colleges and high schools, have random COVID-19 testing, but aside from the “athletic dorms” that are set aside for students at big-time college football programs, there’s not much that can keep the group of protected subjects away from random actors in the general public who may be carrying the disease.

That’s what makes the news coming out of New Hampshire this week troubling. The field hockey team from Nashua Bishop Guertin (N.H.) has had its season-opener put on hold because of two positive Coronavirus tests. Too, the entire team has been sent home to go on remote learning.

Now, we’ve had situations at both U.S. colleges and high schools where training activities have been suspended, and we’ve had at least four football games and the series last weekend between Duke and Syracuse postponed because of positive tests amongst athletes.

As the Coronavirus pandemic has become the single biggest news story of not only this year, but of the entire 21st Century thus far, it is absolutely amazing to me that we’re still talking about people getting the disease even though it is entirely preventable (more or less) through guidelines proffered by public health agencies.

But, as the current death toll in the United States crosses the 200,000 threshhold, this story is going to get worse and worse without widespread testing, tracing, treatment, and, ultimately, a vaccine.

Sept. 21, 2020 — The road to the 2020/1 NCAA final, for better or worse, has begun

Yesterday was the first NCAA field hockey game of the COVID-19 Era, a non-conference match in the ACC between North Carolina and Wake Forest.

UNC remains a loaded and talented side, having won the game 3-1 thanks to goals by Cassie Sumfest, Erin Matson, and Meredith Sholder. The Tar Heels now have won 47 straight games, one of the longest win streaks in NCAA Division I history.

But Carolina is a team which is going to be defined by expectations — internal as well as external. UNC has made 11 consecutive Final Fours, but there are obstacles in their way to making it an even dozen — especially the six obstacles that are in the ACC.

The bigger obstacle is the tournament. The 2020/1 NCAA Division I Tournament is a de facto Tournament of Champions. That’s because there are only 12 teams in the field, with ten being reserved for conference champs. That means that only two At-Large bids will be handed out, so if you’re not the winner of your conference tournament, your odds are about .033 that you’re going to make it into the field.

Of course, the odds are in your favor if you are an At-Large candidate from a strong conference, such as the ACC or the Big Ten. However, it’s not a sure thing that the NCAA Tournament Committee’s formula will designate the second-place teams from those competitions for inclusion in the tournament.

Instead, it will be up to other factors, especially those involving non-conference games. And I’d frankly love to see how the non-conference situation lines up when the other nine NCAA Division I conferences set up their spring schedules.

Too, it will be interesting to see if ACC teams are obligated to schedule a number of non-conference teams this coming spring (even if only a handful per team) in order to boost the resumes of teams other than the conference champion.

If nothing else, a spring ACC competition will keep the seven teams in the league in game shape for the national tournament; it would be befuddling to see the ACC Tournament winner have to wait from Nov. 8 to the first week of May 2021 to play its next game.

Sept. 19, 2020 — When it suits them

Today at the noon hour, collegiate football will be taking over the airwaves unabated. And in about a month, there will be a return by the 14 universities of the Big Ten, per the schedule released recently.

But the other sports within the Big Ten? Apparently not. Ohio State yesterday released a statement saying that its non-revenue fall sports, field hockey inclusive, will be playing a spring schedule to align with the rest of NCAA Division I in order to play for one of the 12 available slots in the NCAA Tournament.

I’m expecting the balance of Big Ten schools to do the same, which is befuddling.

You see, the current Division I football season has already had a number game cancellations and dozens of student-athletes coming down with the novel Coronavirus.

And into this minefield steps the unpaid student-athletes of Big Ten football programs of great prestige.

But there’s something about prestige in sports. Today, the prestige is perpetuated by teams who didn’t actually make those great, conquering achievements. Instead, because of a certain accident of geographical location, they are in a position to carry on a tradition.

And yet, these football universities sit on their thrones and try to dictate morality, according to them. About how you can play, even during a pandemic. Or you shouldn’t show weakness, even as science says your players could be irreparably damaged through contracting this virus. And taxpayers and alumni are expected to accept this order.

But here’s the thing. If all female participation this fall in intercollegiate athletics for the Big Ten has been moved to the spring (along, of course, with a relatively equal number of participants in men’s sports), how is it that all-male gridiron football being allowed to compete in the midst of a worldwide pandemic?

It’s befuddling.

Sept. 18, 2020 — The patchwork quilt that is the Empire State

This fall, it’s anyone’s guess exactly which teams will be contesting the various New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association sectional championships (in lieu of the already-cancelled state tournament).

That’s because a number of individual schools, leagues, sub-leagues, and even entire sections have opted not to play this fall.

In our ongoing attempts to bring you the news as to what’s going on when it comes to “return to play” for field hockey this fall, let’s go over the various regions of the state. Please realize that there will be individual exceptions within each of the sections, ones which could have varying impacts on overall participation within each section.

Here’s what we know so far. The list below focuses solely on field hockey; the NYSPHSAA has already decreed that volleyball, competitive cheer, and football are “high risk” sports and have moved those seasons to the late winter/early spring.

SECTION I (Lower Hudson Valley)
Return Sept. 29

SECTION II (Capital District)
Return Sept. 21 except for the Foothills Conference, which returns March 1, 2021

SECTION III (Central New York)
Return Sept 21 except for the Central Counties League, which returns March 1, 2021; no regional tournament

SECTION IV (Southern Tier)
Return March 1, 2021

SECTION V (Genesee Valley)
Return Sept. 21 except public schools in the city of Rochester

SECTION VI (Western New York)
Return Sept. 21 except public schools in the city of Buffalo

SECTION VII (Champlain Area)
No field hockey

SECTION VIII (Nassau County)
Return March 1, 2021

SECTION IX (Orange, Sullivan, Ulster County)
Return March 1, 2021

SECTION X (St. Lawrence Area)
No field hockey

SECTION XI (Suffolk County)
Return Sept. 21

It’s an interesting patchwork, as half of Long Island (the Suffolk half) will have field hockey as usual. But the moment you move west across the 73rd degree of longitude on a curved line varying between 25 and 28 minutes, your high school (being located in Nassau County) won’t be playing field hockey at all this fall.

It’s a shifting situation, to be sure, and we’ll do our best to keep track of it.

Sept. 17, 2020 — And it’s not just the Big Ten

In spite of continued and rampant spreading of the novel Coronavirus amongst the U.S. and world populations, you’re starting to see a number of sports competitions pull back from previous stances on postponement.

Lost in yesterday’s hoopla over the scheduled return of Big Ten football is the decision of the governor of Colorado to approve a proposal by the Colorado High School Activities Association to allow field hockey and other fall outdoor sports to play a condensed fall season ending in October.

And I do mean “condensed.” It’s Sept. 18 right now, and the proposed Season A for Colorado public schools mandates the end of the season to be Oct. 17 — less than a month from now.

Though I’ve gone ahead and changed the “Return To Play” dashboard entry on this blog for the CHSAA, I really have my doubts as to whether any of Colorado’s high-school teams can gear up for a season to start and finish in such a short period of time, especially given the fact that many state tournament field hockey games have to be played with an orange ball due to snow.

Sept. 15, 2020 — Social justice activism, writ large … and small

Last weekend, a group of girls and young women marched through the streets of Philadelphia, from the grounds of the Strawberry Mansion to the iconic Art Museum front steps.

But this group of people weren’t your usual marchers. They were all members of the Eyekonz organization, which seeks to not only bring the games of field hockey and lacrosse to young people of color in the city, but also helps out in terms of social activism.

Read the story on the march here.