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July 27, 2022 — A bold, and offensive, stroke

Greg Drake, the head coach of the U.S. women’s national field hockey team, knew he had a certain amount of young talent coming out of last week’s NexUS championship.

In choosing a pool of 38 players to form the U.S. senior women’s national team for upcoming tournaments, he also did what a number of his predecessors either could not, or did not, do. And that is to assemble players who have a proven knack for doing what the object of the game is: put the ball into the back of the goal frame.

Amongst the 38 players are the following:

Erin Matson: 87 goals in just two seasons at Kennett Square Unionville (Pa.), 109 goals for the University of North Carolina
Mackenzie Allessie: 124 goals in one season and 351 goals for Mount Joy Donegal (Pa.)
Leah Crouse: 104 goals, 104 assists for Virginia Beach Frank W. Cox (Va.)
Charlotte De Vries, 191 goals for Virginia Beach Cape Henry Academy (Va.) and Tredyffrin Conestoga (Pa.)
Ryleigh Heck, 125 goals in one season and 323 career for Voorhees Eastern (N.J.)
Megan Rodgers, 81 goals in one season for San Diego Serra (Calif.)
Hope Rose, 90 goals in one season and 233 career for Harrisburg Central Dauphin (Pa.)
Meredith Sholder, 217 goals for Emmaus (Pa.)
Paityn Wirth, 180 goals for Millerstown Greenwood (Pa.)

Look. I know that the usual “past performance is no guarantee of future success” is part of every sport, especially in a sport where one call, one missed touch, one error in judgment can derail every plan a coach may have — especially against the likes of Holland, Argentina, or Australia.

And sure, there are situations in the world of sport where the player discarded in high school may become a cultural and sports icon (hello, Michael Jordan).

But I can’t tell you any time in the last 40 years where there has been so much attacking talent in the national team pool at the same time. I think perhaps the last time was in the mid-1990s when players like Tracey Fuchs (171 career goals at Centereach, 79 goals for UConn), Kris Fillat (53 goals at Serra in 1987), and Michelle Vizzuso (69 goals at West Essex in 1994, 50 goals and 60 assists at UVa) were part of the national side. Or what about when Katie O’Donnell (100 goals at Maryland) and Paige Selenski (100 goals at UVa) were on the national team in the early 2010s?

Sure, the United States has had plenty of attacking talent at its disposal. But every story of the players who have scored more than 135 goals in their careers often has a decision or an incident which knocks them off their path to national-team selections.

The group of 38 who are preparing for selection for the next iteration of FIH Pro League play is going to have not only expectations to live up to, but numbers that they have posted in lower levels of competition.

This, however, is a step up. And I’m excited to see what a group of 16 or 18 can do on the world stage.


July 26, 2022 — United States Coach of the Year: Jill Thomas, Princeton (N.J.) Day School

Heading due north out of Princeton, N.J., is County Road 604. But nobody calls it that. For generations of residents, that corridor is called The Great Road.

Take a left off Great Road at the top of a rise, and you will find Princeton (N.J.) Day School, an institution which has been around since 1899.

For the last 34 years, Jill Thomas has been an fixture in the life of the school, coaching basketball, coaching and umpiring field hockey, and being the public-address announcer for football games until the sport was discontinued in 2011.

In recent years, Thomas has also coached the school’s girls’ lacrosse team. The girls’ lacrosse program has gone through a number of coaches throughout the years, including the late Kim Bedesem, Leslie Hagan, and Thomas. Throughout, the Panther team was a dominant force in private-school girls’ lacrosse in the capital region of New Jersey.

The 2022 season, however, brought a new opportunity. Princeton Day School followed a number of its sister schools and gained admission into the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of public and some non-public schools in the state.

It also turned out that the first season of PDS’s dual membership in the NJSIAA and the New Jersey Independent Schools Athletic Association was going to be Thomas’ last as a coach, as she announced her retirement.

For her years of coaching and an unprecedent 2022 campaign, Thomas is the TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year.

What did the Panthers do in 2022? Well, within a period of three weeks, they won the NJISAA private-school tournament with a 13-12 win over Montclair-Kimberley Academy (N.J.), then won four win-or-go-home games in the NJSIAA Non-Public “B” tournament, culminating in a 17-11 win over Absecon Holy Spirit (N.J.).

Three days later, Thomas’ career ended with a 14-9 defeat to Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) in the final NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, but the Panthers were able do match what Oak Knoll has done in recent years — win the private/public school double for the Garden State.

In addition, PDS became the first girls’ lacrosse team from Mercer County to win a public-school state championship since the spring of 1985.

All the while, Thomas did it with her usual combination of hard work and humility. In what has become a Score-O decade in both field hockey and lacrosse, Thomas held fast to the principle that a field hockey team shouldn’t score more than five goals in a game, or win more than a certain amount in a girls’ lacrosse game.

And yet, throughout the years, Thomas has racked up win after win after win on the court and on the turf. It’s estimated that she has more than 600 wins in a coaching career that began in 1988.

When it comes to coaching, the year 1988 has a significance: it was when The Lawrenceville (N.J.) School started admitting girls, and immediately became a rival for Princeton Day School and the other private schools in the capital region.

It always seemed as though when a Thomas-coached team played Lawrenceville, the game became more than just a game. It was an occasion, and a mission.

But if there is one game I’ll always remember Thomas for, it was in another sport: field hockey. It was in 1996 when PDS took on the reigning NJSIAA Group IV champions in Flemington Hunterdon Central (N.J.). Despite the fact that PDS has one-sixth enrollment of Hunterdon Central, the Panther eleven played even up with Central for 60 minutes, coming away with a 0-0 draw.

In terms of small vs. large schools, this was a definite lesson for anyone watching or participating in this intersectional contest.

Jill Thomas taught a lot of lessons to her students and to observers for a third of a century. The girls’ lacrosse universe in central New Jersey is going to be lessened with her retirement.


ALSO CONSIDERED:

Allie Ferrera, Morristown (N.J.): Steered the Colonials through a murderous North Jersey Group IV bracket and won the state championship in the group. Only losses were to national powers Oak Knoll, Summit, and Chatham

Mary Gagnon, Brooklandville St. Paul’s School for Girls (Md.): It wasn’t the fact that the Gators were able to come out of the COVID years a winner in 2022, it’s just the fact that the team has had great and consistent winning form in the country’s finest lacrosse conference

Becky Groves, Sykesville Century (Md.): Steered the Knights to a state championship and the second unbeaten season in program history. Century handled Parkton Hereford (Md.) 15-6 to win the Class 2A state championship.

John Kroah, Massilon Jackson (Ohio): Came close to winning a first state championship against established powers

Savannah Porter, Canton Creekview (Ga.): Almost upended an established power, Milton (Ga.) in the state final, but lost a late lead

Laura Sandbloom, Denver Colorado Academy (Colo.): In her final year as head coach, she was able to best Highlands Ranch Valor Christian (Colo.) 13-9 in the Class 5A final for the team’s seventh straight championship

Olivia Smart, Huntington Beach Edison (Calif.): In five years, this team has become a true contender for postseason honors. Edison won its first Sunset League title and qualified for the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section Division 1 Tournament

Paige Walton, Glenelg (Md.) Country School: The veteran coach has won titles at the IAAM “C” Division and the “B” Division, and made a memorable run at a first “A” Division championship

Kristin Woods, New Canaan (Conn.): Playing a tough league schedule, the Rams were able to get past county rival Darien (Conn.) when it counted, the state championship final after each team split previous matches

July 24, 2022 — Is tabloid media ousting a coach?

Over the last few years, local television news stations have resorted to more and more lurid stories to try to gain ratings during “sweeps” period.

More recently, especially during the pandemic, those local tabloid news outlets have started targeting the U.S. public education system for stories and ratings.

“BREAKING NEWS: Crisis in the Classroom!” scream the headlines as news stories ranging from reports of broken boilers to lead pipes are shown.

More recently, those crisis stories have been focusing on individuals within schools, targeting teachers and their supervisors personally. I saw one station take down an award-winning teacher at a local magnet school for the performing arts, because the teacher was accused of sexual misconduct. A bigger story emerged: the lack of oversight by the school district to do anything about personnel issues of this nature.

This past week, the Sinclair-owned CBS affiliate in Albany, N.Y. put the field hockey coach of Bethlehem (N.Y.) Central under fire for “mental abuse” allegations. The claim, put forth by one parent, is that 40 percent of the parents on the team were against the re-appointment of the coach. That parent, after that, wanted to have the district investigated for a lack of transparency.

The story elicited a response from the school district:

The Bethlehem Central School District retained an independent law firm to conduct a thorough investigation of allegations concerning its field hockey program. The investigation found that there was no violation of the District’s Code of Conduct or the Dignity for all Students Act within the field hockey program. The Board of Education’s July 2022 reappointment of the head field hockey coach was made after the investigation had concluded, and after the parents who had raised concerns were notified in writing of the outcome of the investigation, in June 2022.

Now, I’ve seen a number of situations like this over the last 24 years, where parents have had a beef with the way a coach operates. This has happened with both teams which have been unsuccessful, and also with title-winning teams. Some good coaches — including some with international experience — have been ousted by parents who have influence either in the town or over members of the school district.

More often than not, in my experience, there is very little behind abuse allegations. Indeed, I’d be very skeptical of this TV station because of its ties to Sinclair and other stations under that corporate umbrella which have seemingly been directed to direct investigative power against public schools. Sinclair is the largest corporation owning local television state in the United States, and, as such, has made some unusual demands on them. I invite you to read this story regarding their “must air” policy.

That is, however, no reason to dismiss the allegations at Bethlehem Central. You see, finding sexual liaisons between teachers and students is, frankly, like shooting fish in a barrel. I’ve followed one tracker of such stories over the course of more than two years, and the number of stories of inappropriate relationships averaged more than one per day across America.

Mind you, I’m sure that not every player on a field hockey team looks at the kind of coaching used to get the best out of them as a positive.

But I’ll reserve judgment as to whether actual abuse has occurred and leave it to professionals and not the tabloid media.

July 23, 2022 — A hidden sign of progress — or is it?

I didn’t want to go much further without circling back to some of the conference shifting happening in NCAA Division I.

One of the stories of the 2022 women’s lacrosse season was the fact that Stony Brook, a Top 10 program the last several years, did not have a chance to play for a conference championship because the school moved from the America East Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association. And the Seawolves still managed to get into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection.

SBU and Monmouth are two women’s lacrosse programs who are going to be part of the Colonial next year.

The other two universities joining the CAA, however, are two historically-black colleges: Hampton and North Carolina A&T. Hampton and North Carolina A&T are the second and third HBCUs to leave their all-Black conferences to join up with other universities; the first was Tennessee State University, which joined the Ohio Valley Conference in 1986.

Neither Hampton nor North Carolina A&T have a women’s lacrosse team, though Hampton did make headlines a few years ago by starting a men’s team.

We’ve noticed, over the last 25 years, a number of women’s athletics programs at HBCUs being added. But we’ve also noticed that a number of non-Black athletes have filled the scholarship slots in some of these sports, especially bowling and softball.

And then, there are HBCUs which have undergone nearly wholesale racial changes, such as Bluefield State, West Virginia State, and Kentucky State, all of which are 50-percent or more non-African American.

Can we see lacrosse teams; nay, even field hockey programs, coming from these two new entrants into the CAA?

It’s possible, though we’ve seen Tennessee State pretty much stand pat when it comes to the breadth of women’s programs. But let us see what is going to happen to the demographics of the schools in the long term. After all, one HBCU with a burgeoning non-African American population, the University of the District of Columbia, has both men’s and women’s lacrosse teams.

Let’s see.

June 21, 2022 — A quiet beginning

This week, the Nexus Senior Championship is being contested at the National Training Center in Virginia Beach. About 130 field hockey hopefuls have come to Landstown Road to play a week’s worth of games.

The reward is a little different: the current U.S. braintrust of selectors are looking to form the basis of what could very well become the 2028 Olympic team.

Current members of the national team pool, including Danielle Grega, Erin Matson, Kealsie Robles, and Amanda Magadan, are joined with promising younger players with caps such as Mackenzie Allessie, Lauren Wadas, Olivia Bent-Cole and Beth Yeager. Also included within the Nexus rosters are some of the players this site has been tracking over the last few years, such as Hope Rose, Ryleigh Heck, Maci Bradford, and Sophia Gladieux.

As it happens, tomorrow’s championship final will feature a pair of unbeaten sides. Salt Lake City (one win, two draws) will have Kathryn Peterson, late of the University of Michigan. It also has a pair of players who prepped at Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.), Avery Donahue and Caroline Ramsey. Opposing SLC is Team Paris, which has a lot of offensive firepower. Not only do you have Wadas, a member of your defending national champions from Northwestern, but Heck, who is coming off a record-setting senior season. Also playing some eye-popping hockey are the smooth Yeager as well as Abigail Tamer.

I hope you get to watch the final tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. on USA Field Hockey’s YouTube presence. It’s going to be a look into the future for the game in the U.S. — not only on the field, but off it. You see, I find it interesting that the Nexus Senior tournament concludes one day after the start of Athletes Unlimited lacrosse. You see, it’s a pool of players like the ones on display which could form an AU league for field hockey, something for which we have repeatedly advocated.

Friends, if you can tomorrow, put this link onto a social media post: I don’t care whether it goes on Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, TikTok, or any of the many fine social media outlets in the world. I’d like there to be enough eyes on this game so that people like Geico, Nike, Progressive, and others who sponsor the pro lacrosse leagues will take a flyer on an AU field hockey promotion.

How about it?

July 18, 2022 — An appreciation: Belen Succi, goalkeeper, Argentina

One in an occasional series.

Back in July 2008, Gabriel Minadeo had a problem. His Argentina women’s national field hockey team had lost three or four matches to the United States in a Test series in Chula Vista, Calif. He made an interesting choice heading into the Beijing Olympics: carrying both Paola Vukojcic and a promising 22-year-old named Belen Succi.

The problem is that carrying both of them on the active roster for the 2008 Olympics took away 1/5th of the usual bench strength for an Olympic women’s hockey team.

Argentina needn’t have worried. Succi’s inclusion in the side was a master stroke for the Albicelestes, as she would embark on a 15-year national team career, one which ended last Sunday with a silver medal in the FIH Women’s World Cup.

Succi was, for me, the first of today’s modern, physical goalies. She could fearlessly stop killer blasts from the edge of the circle, scramble from wing to win to snuff out scoring opportunities, and was a master at sprawling her frame to block the lower sector of the goal cage.

More importantly, Succi had all of the physical gifts needed to win penalty shootouts. But the thing is, the Leonas were always so good in regulation time, there was often no need to call on Succi to defend penalties.

Succi had legendary players in front of her. It is easy to forget that she had to defend shots from legends like Luciana Aymar, Noel Barrionuevo, Soledad Garcia, Delfina Merino, Carla Rebecchi, and Agustina Gorzelany every day in practice.

Of all of the world tournaments that have concluded thus far this month, and all of the careers which have ended, watching Succi walk off the pitch for the last time is one of the most heart-rending. She’s been a great servant to the game, and she will be missed.

July 17, 2022 — Inside the FIH Women’s World Cup final

This afternoon, the current Olympic champion Holland will meet Argentina in a rematch of last August’s Olympic final. As such, there is an expectation that the Albicelestes may have a better chance to win today’s game because of lessons learned from last year’s 3-1 defeat.

Here’s our worm’s-eye view of the final:

ARGENTINA: Key players: Belen Succi, g; Agustina Gorzelany, d; Rocio Sanchez Moccia, m; Maria Jose Granatto, f; Delfina Thome

HOLLAND: Marloes Keetels, m; Frederique Matla, f; Freeke Moes, f; Eva de Goede, m; Lidewij Welten, f

ARGENTINA WINS THIS GAME IF: They can recover quickly from their semifinal shootout win over Germany. Mind you, it’s not like soccer, where a shootout comes only after 30 minutes of extra time; they haven’t played overtime in world hockey in a decade

HOLLAND WINS THIS GAME IF: They are not too overconfident. This is the seventh consecutive FIH World Cup final the Dutch have appeared in; you can pretty much count on your hotel reservations for the final if Holland is in a tournament

THE SKINNY: Argentina has scored more goals coming into the final than Holland has. And that’s even with the retirements of Carla Rebecchi and Noel Barrionuevo in the last few years. Both teams have prominent players who will exit the international stage after today’s final, as Belen Succi and Marloes Keetels have announced their impending retirements.

July 16, 2022 — A matter of rest

This evening the United States takes on Canada in the gold-medal match of the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Ala.

Both of these teams will, by the end of tonight’s play, have played five games in five days. Now, this is all the U.S. team has played this month. But a number of Canada’s players, including the likes of Dana Dobbie, Aurora Cordingley, Erica Evans, and Brooklyn Walker-Welch, also competed in the World Championships, which finished out just a week ago in Towson, Md.

During the World Championships, Canada played a total of eight full-field games in 11 days. This would mean that, if Canada was to win the World Games, it would be doing so with a substantial portion of the roster playing 13 games in 18 games.

That’s a lot of lacrosse.

And a lot of people within the NCAA are, for better or worse, noticing either a surplus of rest periods between games, or a distinct lack thereof. For years, the people who run NCAA Division III women’s lacrosse and field hockey have scheduled match weekends for Saturdays and Sundays — either the octofinal and quarterfinal rounds, or the semifinal round and the grand final.

In Division I and Division II, the schedule has been to have games on Friday and Sunday — with a day’s rest in between the semis and the final. Division I used to have a Saturday-Sunday format until 1996 for the semis and final. Oddly enough, Division I did not put a day’s rest between the octofinal and quarterfinal rounds until 2018.

It’s been much the same in lacrosse, although there has always been a week between the octofinal and quarterfinal round (the Division I women’s schedule was altered in 2022 for television).

Now, we have been hearing activism from the Division III women’s lacrosse community for a day’s rest between rounds of the tournament. We’re not sure whether this will have a flow-through to field hockey, but it would be a notable change in the postseason schedule for both sports if the change went through.

Of course, rest is something not lost on the veteran members of Team Canada’s women’s lacrosse, who have attained two major world finals in less than three weeks, which is a remarkable achievement given the workload on the players who were in both the World Championship and the World Games.

July 13, 2022 — What is Canada doing right?

Yesterday, at the gold-medal final of the World Games men’s sixes lacrosse tournament, Canada defeated the United States by a score of 23-9.

For most of you who follow the game, this isn’t entirely unexpected. Six-a-side lacrosse, especially played on a rink or court, is practically religion in Canada. Box lacrosse is played from coast to coast and is especially popular amongst Native Americans on both sides of the border.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention to the women’s side of world championship play in team sports, you’d see what’s coming.

In soccer, Canada is the current Olympic champion, having won the gold in Tokyo last year. In ice hockey, Canada is also the Olympic champion, having won gold in Beijing in February.

In field hockey, Canada is the current top cheese in North America, as they are playing in the World Cup while the United States failed to qualify.

In field lacrosse last week, Canada got to within three goals of the United States in the gold-medal match.

Compare this to what the world of women’s sports was like in 1998, the year this site started.

The U.S. had won the Nagano Olympics in women’s ice hockey. The States also held the Atlanta Olympics gold medal.

In field hockey, the U.S. had finished in eighth place at the FIH World Cup, whilst Canada didn’t qualify.

And in field lacrosse, the States held the 1997 FIL World Cup, with Canada finishing fifth.

Canada, a nation with 1/10th the population of the United States, is catching up to (if not already surpassed) a number of high-dollar, well-funded team sports throughout the athletic universe.

And that’s not all. In the current FIBA rankings, the Canadian women’s basketball team is ranked fourth in the world. And that’s in a sport the United States has outright owned since the 1932 Olympics on the men’s side, and since the 1953 FIBA World Cup on the women’s.

Makes you wonder what Canada is doing right.

July 6, 2022 — Another one of the greats to hang up her whistle

Until about 10 years ago, the top 10 to 20 coaches in terms of field hockey coaching victories had one thing in common: they were all active.

Then, starting in 2013, came the retirements of Nancy Williams, Elvetta Gemski, and Angela Tammaro. More recently, Matt Soto, Bob Derr, Karen Doxey, Claudia McCarthy, and Laurie Berger, all of whom are 600-win coaches, also decided to retire from coaching scholastic field hockey.

Joining them in retirement, starting at the end of the 2022 fall field hockey season, will be Karen Klassner of Kingston Wyoming Seminary (Pa.).

Klassner has coached Wyoming Seminary for the last 49 years, adding to an illustrious history of the sport which can be traced all the way back to 1919. But since Wyoming Seminary joined the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association in 1986, the Blue Knights’ program has set a standard for excellence which is rivaled by few other schools in America.

Here’s how good Wyoming Seminary has been in the last five years: the Knights have made the PIAA Class A state final the last five years, winning four consecutive titles. This is in a commonwealth in which no team had ever won three straight state titles before Sem did it in 2020.

Sure, you can chalk this up to the fact that the PIAA went from two classifications to three in 2016, but the road to a state title is still no less difficult: you have to get through your district tournament in order to get to the state tournament, which is loaded with other district champions and some pretty good second- or third-place winners. And in each classification, you have nearly 100 teams clamoring for the medals in the state final.

Klassner has put together some unforgettable teams over the years. There was the 2006 team which knocked off Selinsgrove (Pa.) in the semifinal thanks to three high-school all-Americans, including future senior national-teamers Kat Sharkey and Kelsey Kolojejchick. There was the 2010 team which had a male player, Cornelius Tietze, whose presence re-kindled the debate about the presence of males in scholastic field hockey.

And there was also the 2004 team which lost the “Did Sem Score?” game, where videotape viewed on the Pennsylvania Cable Network machinery in the press box appeared to show a Wyoming Seminary player touching a through pass which went into the Crestwood goal cage less than two minutes before the Comets ended the most gripping of 40 years’ worth of I-81 Derby matches with the overtime victory.

This fall, with the likes of Emma Watchilla and Ella Barbacci in the side, Wyoming Seminary is an odds-on favorite to win another state title and send Klassner off in grand style.