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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. 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. 9, 2019 — BULLETIN: Pan American Games women: USA 5, Chile 1

As much as the 2-0 defeat to Canada just two days ago stung the American women’s field hockey team’s psyche, it’s amazing what a rest day did for the Applebees.

Erin Matson had a masterful match for the States, scoring a hat trick in a 5-1 defeat of Chile in the bronze-medal match at the Pan American Games.

While there is a lot of work for this U.S. side to do in order to make a fourth consecutive Olympics, winning this match does a lot for not only this side’s confidence, but in terms of world rankings points.

The FIH World Ranking is a complicated system which counts points in a layered system, with points in past years counting less as time goes on. The points that the U.S. gained for its fifth-place finish in Rio, for example, count only 25 percent of what they were in 2016.

The United States, in the big picture, remains at station at 13th place. Yep, nothing is changing since the FIH formula only counts the most recent continental championship’s result in the world rankings. This means that the States are replacing third-place points from the Pan American Cup from tw years ago with third-place points from Lima.

Chile’s fourth-place finish in this tournament actually cost them 340 points in the world rankings, meaning that they could wind up dropping all the way down to 18th place.

Canada, which lost the gold-medal match to Argentina today, was guaranteed to gain at least 340 points, because it finished fourth at the Pan American Cup two years ago. That would put the Leafs in 15th, just behind Japan, a team which has not only played its continental qualifier, but won it.

Here’s what this means: if we assume that Holland and Australia — two of the top three teams in the world — win their continental qualifiers alongside Argentina, that means the next three teams — Germany, Team GB, and New Zealand — are likely to play the bottom three of the 14 teams selected to play in the two-legged Olympic qualifiers (which is done on world rankings points). The pairings are to be done by a draw, according to the FIH’s regulations.

Depending on circumstances, those three teams could be Malaysia, Chile, and Italy. But that also depends on whether South Africa’s Olympic committee allows its field hockey teams to go to the Olympics, which they have not allowed the last two Olympic cycles.

That would leave the middle eight teams in a pool, and lots are going to be drawn for those four pairings. Those teams would be Spain, Ireland, Belgium, India, Korea, China, the United States, and Canada.

Now, if the U.S. had lost to Chile this afternoon, the States would have fallen from 1223 points to 1193, and Canada would have almost vaulted them at 1163.

We don’t know who will play who yet; there are still other continental titles to be won between now and Sept. 8. But the potential pairings are better than if the U.S. had to play a top-six side.

 

Aug. 9, 2019 — Pan American Games men: Argentina 5, USA 0

Back in 1956, the Olympic field hockey tournament went to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time, with games played at the Melbourne (Australia) Cricket Ground.

The tournament was notable for a few quirks. One, four of the 16 teams selected in world ranking, including No. 2 Holland, withdrew from the competition before the Olympics began, leading to a reduction to a 12-team tournament.

If FIH had chosen to replace the four lost teams with the next four in world ranking, however, the last team (at No. 20) would have been the Saar Protectorate, which was made out of the post-World War II occupation by the Allied powers. The region, which had been under French rule, chose to rejoin West Germany only after the 1956 Olympic Games.

But it is also memorable for what happened Dec. 6, 1956. On that day, the U.S. men’s field hockey team played a 1-1 draw against Afghanistan. It was the last time an American men’s field hockey team participated in an Olympics when it was not the host nation.

Yesterday, that 63-year drought was continued when the United States dropped a 5-0 decision to defending Olympic champion Argentina. The loss had more of a sense of finality than the women’s loss to Chile because the Wolfpack had no other outlet into the Olympics except winning the Pan American Games.

Of course, winning yesterday’s matchup was a tough ask for a side which has had very little domestic development behind it for the last 80 years; no American high school or university has men’s field hockey as a varsity sport, and there are plenty of powers-that-be in the current field hockey infrastructure who actively discriminate against male participation in the sport.

But it’s interesting that, with as small a budget as the men have had in this Olympic cycle, it got to the same semifinal level as the women’s national team, with its cash flow coming from Futures, kit sponsorship, and the Spooky Nook Sports Complex.

At the very least, the U.S. men’s program does have something to look forward to; in 2028, the U.S. is guaranteed to be in both men’s and women’s field hockey tournaments, since they are going to be held in Los Angeles.

August 6, 2019 — Pan American Games women: Canada 2, USA 0

For thousands of field hockey aficionados nationwide, the line at the top of this blog entry is a punch to the solar plexus.

That’s because the two-time defending Pan American Games champion failed to make the final of a second consecutive Pan American Hockey Federation championship, losing 2-0 to Canada.

There had to have been warning bells in training camp after the United States won only one of four matches in a Test series in Chula Vista earlier this year.

But the warnings, it seems, were not heeded.

As a result, the United States’ lone route to the 2020 Olympics will be running a two-game series later this year, on the road, against likely a world Top 5 opponent.

There will be a lot of pencils and calculators being used to figure this out, but we do know that, of the top 16 teams in world ranking:

  1. Japan (14) is already in;
  2. Either Australia (2) or New Zealand (6) will be in;
  3. One major European nation — Holland (1), Team GB (4), or Germany (5) will make it;
  4. Once again, South Africa (16) might not be allowed to participate if it wins the African qualifier.

Chile (15), which plays the 13th-ranked U.S. in the bronze-medal match, is battling for 30 ratings points for third place in the continental championship.

I believe the US will fall to 15th in the calculation of world rankings after the other continental tournaments wrap in the second week in September.

I would therefore project that the States are likely to have to play England or Germany (unless Holland loses the Euro championship). There is a small chance that New Zealand could be then opponents as well.