TopOfTheCircle.com

Serving the scholastic field hockey and lacrosse community since 1998

Archive for Omnibus

Nov. 7, 2019 — An educational windfall, and an opportunity

Yesterday, an educational proposal worth some $2.2 billion was unveiled, promising curriculum changes, and new school and infrastructure construction for the State of Maryland.

The announcement follows on the funding plan assembled by the Kirwan Commission, a blue-ribbon panel of experts. Using casino and money from an educational trust fund, the plans would expand pre-K, increase salaries, implement advanced curriculum, target funding towards underperforming schools, and add a mechanism for accountability.

Education, it seems, will be on the mind of many Maryland legislators during the 2020 legislative session, which occurs between the first week of January and the first week of April.

And, I think, there is an opportunity here to rectify an imbalance — actually, several of them.

In field hockey and lacrosse, the regular season in the state of Maryland is just 12 games, the shortest mandated regular seasons in the nation for these two sports.

But change is slow and frustrating in The Free State. To make any sort of substantive change requires an act of the state legislature, not a rule passed by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, since the MPSSAA is part of the Maryland Department of Education.

I did an interview back in 2000 with Lil Shelton, the head field hockey coach at Severna Park (Md.), who expressed frustration with the way that scholastic sports were run in the state. It had taken a lot of her social capital to get a friend of hers to introduce a resolution allowing field hockey (and other sports) to add an in-season tournament of up to two games to the schedule.

But I’m looking to do more. I’m drafting an actual legislative bill, with the working title the Schedule Equity Act (or SEA) of 2020.

What it would do is direct the MPSSAA to adopt schedule lengths dependent upon the average of the four surrounding U.S. states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia. We would have included the District of Columbia, but the DCIAA has a much smaller athletics footprint (except for football and basketball), and their numbers might affect the averages.

So, here’s a listing of sports, the length of season for the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, and the average for the four surrounding states (three in the case of field hockey and lacrosse, because neither sport is officially sanctioned by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission):

SPORT MPSSAA AVG
Field hockey 12 16.3
Football 10 10
Cross Country 10 14.25
Soccer 12 17.75
Volleyball 15 19.75
Basketball 20 21.5
Swimming 12 14.75
Indoor Track 10 12.3
Wrestling 14 17.5
Baseball 18 22.5
Softball 18 22.5
Golf 12 15.75
Tennis 18 17.75
Outdoor track 10 14.5
Lacrosse 12 15.6

Only one sport remains constant across all five juristictions: football, as all play a 10-game regular season.

There are some interesting variations in other athletic endeavors. West Virginia boosts the games-played average in baseball and softball because they have a 32-game regular season in comparison to the 18 in Maryland and Delaware.

Virginia drags down the average in both indoor and outdoor track, with just 10 dual meets allowed in their regular season — presumably, the work gets done in the VHSL during District, Regional, and State all-comers meets.

Our scenario, if enacted, would direct all but two athletic activities in the MPSSAA’s purview — football and tennis — to increase their regular-season schedules. These increases would be at least two games per sport, and as many as six for soccer.

The argument about why scholastic sports team schedules should expand is as simple as equality. With Maryland being such a small state, there could be a danger of athletic flight, with families moving over state lines in order to give their children a better environment for playing the sport they love at their school.

But there’s also another reason. Players and coaches in Maryland have the same 12 weeks together as a team as other teams in neighboring states. There should be more games in Maryland so that players aren’t training day after day late in the season with little to do unless you’re a playoff team.

Having an extra two to four games in a season also won’t cost schools all that much money, since the uniforms, sticks, trainers, and playing fields are already paid for. And with more than $2.2 billion coming in from casino and other funding, opportunities should be opened for existing sports teams.

Over the course of months, I’ll try to bring you some progress reports as to how this bill goes through the process. I’ll try to take you into the smoky backrooms as legislators talk up this bill. Heck, if this gets enough popular support (i.e., goes viral), perhaps your Founder might have to register as a lobbyist.

And wouldn’t that be something?

Oct. 30, 2019 — New rule, same problems?

Yesterday, the NCAA’s Board of Governors voted to allow students to benefit from the use of their names, images, and likenesses for money.

It is a very small step in the movement towards paying collegiate athletes for their time and labor, a step which only covers the O’Bannon v. NCAA court case, which was settled five years ago.

For those of you just joining us in the discussion, O’Bannon v. NCAA dealt with the fact that Ed O’Bannon, a student-athlete in the NCAA who had a middling pro career despite being the ninth pick in the NBA Draft, noticed that he was receiving no compensation for appearing in college basketball video games, or from sales of his UCLA jersey in the campus bookstore.

Only now, with California and a number of states proposing and passing laws allowing student-athletes to receive compensation, has the NCAA made this very sudden — and very reactive — move.

The problem is that the NCAA has been this lumbering and arrogant bureaucracy, proclaiming an outdated version of amateurism while raking in billions of dollars through television rights.

Thing is, amateurism went out the window the day that Dwight Stones sought to appear on The Superstars, the made-for-TV athletic competition, back in the mid-70s. A lawsuit coming out of this situation led to the passage of the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which broke up the Amateur Athletic Union, brought in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and allowing track and field and many other heretofore amateur athletes to make a living through prize money.

It’s taken people of vision, such as Stones, O’Bannon, and California governor Gavin Newsom to challenge the old way of doing business. And yes, I posit that college sports is most definitely a business. There is value on muscle and sinew, and the way that the college athlete — whether a water-polo player, a quarterback, or a dragflicker — uses those gifts.

Now, a lot of people have asked me over the last 21 years about the recruiting process in the context of “return on investment.” Sports which used to have little to no cost to play have developed monetized systems to make money off overly eager parents.

What had been a 12-week Little League experience has now become all-season travel baseball with four or five games on a weekend. What was “shirts and skins” at the local blacktop is now the cesspool that is AAU basketball. What was pond shinny every morning in locales from Maine to Minnesota is now 6 a.m. travel hockey with long bus rides and very expensive equipment, most of all paying for the rink.

I wonder if the NCAA’s decision to allow athletes to make money may actually make the teen sports experience worse.

Oct. 29, 2019 — A milestone

Today’s National Top 10 has a special significance, as it was the 5,000th blog entry for this site.

Ever since we transitioned our entries over from a very clunky Yahoo site (something which, seemingly, foreshadowed its exit from the blogging business) into WordPress back in July 2006, the blog catalogued 13 years’ worth of achievement, endeavor, and, we think, history.

We’ve seen how history has repeated itself between the field hockey and lacrosse communities, in that:

  • the two winningest coaches in either sport (Susan Butz-Stavin and Kathy Jenkins) are currently active;
  • the highest scorers in the history of the game (Mackenzie Allessie and Caitlyn Wurzburger) are graduating within a year of each other;
  • the longest unbeaten streaks (McDonogh and Watertown) were snapped in the same academic year;
  • And, for a while, the top teams in the country in each sport (Eastern and Mount Hebron) were called the Vikings.

What was initially conceived as BlogOfTheCircle, an occasional place for insights, has become the major driver of eyeballs to TopOfTheCircle.com. It has given you lists, opinions, statistical analysis, and breaking news — especially a surfeit of field hockey news on Nov.  14 and 15, 2007.

We reported on some of the semifinal action in state tournaments in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. A few hours later, we added a bulletin about Oak Knoll beating Eastern in the second NJSIAA Tournament of Champions — the origin of The Garden State Firm. The next evening, we had the news that Sussex Tech was no longer going to be in the Delaware state tournament because of an ineligible player.

Throughout it all, we’ve had context and perspective. We’ve stuck with our journalistic principles in reporting facts (with the occasional opinion herein). As such, I think our proudest moment was Nov. 19th, 2015, when we recapped two frenetic days of field hockey action from several states on a timeline.

Another moment was in early 2010 when we broke the news of mandatory eyewear in scholastic field hockey, a development which changed the game since players got to be more fearless attacking the scoring circle, leading to the current Score-O Decade.

And there was the weekend where we got the most views: the Maryland-New York Challenge in April 2012. There were eight games over the weekend and it threatened to overload the limits that we had at the time on our bandwidth.

So, here’s to 5,000 more blog entries to come!

Oct. 27, 2019 — Should the NWSL be worried?

This afternoon, the North Carolina Courage won their second consecutive National Women’s Soccer League championship.

And it wasn’t even close; the team beat the Chicago Red Stars 4-0 thanks to a number of players, such as Casey Short, Jessica McDonald, Heather O’Reilly, McCall Zerboni, and Lynn Williams, who did not figure into the U.S. women’s national team’s run in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Let’s focus you a little more. This Courage team was able to put four goals past the U.S. starting goalkeeper, Alyssa Naeher.

This tells me that the United States possesses an absolute surfeit of talent in women’s soccer. It is a surfeit that, I think, can be tapped by a number of foreign football clubs looking to make names for themselves.

That could be a problem, especially with clubs like Olympique Lyonnais, FC Barcelona, and Arsenal, all of whom have deep pockets.

I think there is going to be a reaction by the NWSL though expansion. There has already been one announcement of a new team for 2021, in Louisville, Ky. But I think the league desperately needs to take up residence somewhere in California next year, and perhaps join up with the new St. Louis team in MLS when it begins.

Too, the league needs to try to mend fences with supporters in Boston and perhaps figure out a way to put Sky Blue FC closer to New York, reboot franchises in Philadelphia and Kansas City, and take advantage of soccer-specific stadia being built all over the country.

Ultimately, there needs to be more national sponsorship in order for the league to be sustainable. Yes, InBev has boosted the league’s profile and marketing through the Budweiser brand, but Bud was one of the original sponsors of Major League Soccer all the way back in 1996.

MLS, remember, had deep-pocketed sponsors such as MasterCard, Honda, Bandai, and the New York Life insurance company back in 1996. But the majority of the investment in Major League Soccer these days is through ownership groups ranging from Red Bull Gmbh to the group that owns Los Angeles FC, which includes the likes of Mia Hamm, Nomar Garciaparra, and Magic Johnson.

The NWSL needs more of these, rather than corporate names on the front of jerseys.

Oct. 21, 2019 — Varsity verification

It was mid-March when first word of college admissions irregularities started hitting the newspapers.

The gyre has widened to encapsulate a number of universities, such as Southern Cal, Yale, Wake Forest, and Georgetown. Some 51 people have been indicted on federal charges, and about half have already reached plea deals.

Oddly enough, it is one of the universities not involved in the Varsity Blues scandal which has become one of the first to institute reforms.

That school is Harvard, which has the most varsity athletic programs. One of the programs, its fencing team, had its own controversy when head coach Peter Brand is alleged to have sold his house — at a considerable markup — to the family of a potential recruit.

Harvard has now put in writing that coaches looking to admit a student-athlete provide proof of an applicant’s athletic ability for use by admissions officers. Presumably, a lot of that is done already through highlight videos which are often peddled by video companies which attend national tournaments in many sports.

But there’s one thing that I think will have the most lasting impact. That is the fact that Harvard coaches are now required to take conflict-of-interest training. This kind of training is very much a no-brainer for employees in many businesses and government organizations.

And the fact that it has taken this long for the most prestigious university in the country to start implementing conflict-of-interest training is, well, stupefying.

Oct. 20, 2019 — The beauty of competition

I didn’t do a Final Third today.

But thanks to the heroics of the Louisville Cardinals, I should have.

Louisville and Iowa played an ACC matchup yesterday with both sides in the nation’s Top 10, and they played a dilly of a game.

First off, there was the quality of what could have been the game-winning goal in the second half. On the play, Iowa’s Lokke Streibos pinged the ball off the backboard with a blast with a trajectory which was maybe 15 inches off the ground when it approached the goal cage, and when it hit the backboard, the ball bounced up. That’s how much spin and momentum was imparted to the ball.

In the final seconds of regulation, with Louisville needing a chance to tie the score, the Cardinals received a lifeline when Iowa was called for putting the ball over the endline deliberately, setting up an untimed corner at the end of regulation. Carter Ayars, crashing in from the wing, scored while on the ground to send the match to extra time.

In the final seconds of the first half of overtime, a lightning bolt pass from Alli Bitting to Madison Walsh was deflected past the Iowa goalkeeper to end the game with just four seconds remaining on the clock.

The beauty of competition is not just the product on the field. It’s how players have worked hard to get into the situations they are in, and how well the athletes execute in key situations.

Take, for example, last night in the denouement of the American League Championship Series. Houston manager A.J. Hinch, knowing he had a chance to end the series, planned out his pitching so that the guy he wanted, Alberto Osuna, was going to pitch the ninth inning with the Astros in a two-run advantage.

But an odd thing happened: Osuna blew the save, allowing New York to tie the game. (Mind you, Jose Altuve homered a few minutes later to send Houston to the World Series.)

My mind also hearkens back to Chris Wondolowski, who was, at one time, the leading scorer in the history of Major League Soccer. He worked hard throughout the 2010s to make the U.S. men’s World Cup team, and he even got a chance to be a hero in a 2014 elimination game against Belgium.

But when he got his chance, he missed the goal cage entirely, allowing Belgium to win in extra time. The United States has not played in a men’s World Cup game since.

It’s games like yesterday’s Iowa-Louisville game which can have ramifications for both teams in terms of conference tournament seeding, Ratings Percentage Index, and potential opponents for the NCAA Division I championship.

Oct. 17, 2019 — Red (and green?) coloring the mind

Tuesday night, I watched with some dismay as the U.S. men’s soccer team, a group of professional athletes with millions of dollars’ worth of salary, player development, and training behind them, lose to Canada for the first time since 1985.

The U.S. men have been on a precipitous slide for a number of years, even before the debacle of not being able to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Sure, there are more Americans playing overseas than ever before.

But only one, Christian Pulisic, is able to command hefty transfer fees like the $73 million that Chelsea FC paid to Borussia Dortmund a few months ago.

Too, despite the growth in organized developmental soccer from a bunch of kids running around on a weekend to the multi-level Development Academy teams and a burgeoning second tier pro league with 32 locations, the apparatus is not providing the U.S. national team with the talent needed to win enough games in the incredibly tough road matches that can be found in CONCACAF.

I mean, when the United States could come away with ties in the heat of The Office in Kingston, Jamaica; or the altitude and smog of the Azteca; or the unfriendly confines of Saprissa Stadium in Costa Rica; or the heat and humidity in Guatemala, Panama, or Trinidad — well, that was a feat. And there were plenty of times when unfancied U.S. teams could go in there and win.

But for the Americans to lose in Toronto? In front of half a crowd which is not exactly hostile?

Here’s the thing.

I’m now worried sick about the state of American national governing bodies of sport. And it’s not just about soccer, but a lot of the other athletic activities you might see once every four years.

If you look at the headlines, it seems like once every couple of months there is some sort of scandal involving inappropriate relationships that roils one sport or another, whether is swimming, gymnastics, taekwondo, or speed skating.

There are also shifting tides in how Americans view their particular sports. Americans’ interest in certain Olympic sports like boxing, cycling, and track and field are at an all-time low, and are supplanted by “extreme sports,” mixed martial arts, and games which are turned into sporting events.

Don’t believe me? Try and find a local boxing card in your community. Look at your calendar and tell me when your next major bicycle race is being held. Find a crowd of more than a few dozen at any track meet.

These three athletic disciplines have given us legends like Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Major Taylor, Greg LeMond, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Jesse Owens — people who transcended sport.

I think there’s a major, major organizational problem in a number of sports under the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s purview. I’m really hoping I’m wrong.

I’m looking to see, for example, whether the U.S. women’s field hockey team can win a two-game series against India early next month.

Field hockey is a sport which has received millions of dollars in investment over the last decade or so, including a palatial “Home of Hockey” in Manheim Township, Pa. Yet, since the 2014 FIH World Cup, the American women’s world ranking has slipped from the top five all the way down to 13th.

And this, as a lot of money has been sunk into not only their development as a team, but in maintaining Spooky Nook as an entity and as a sports complex.

But unlike the men’s soccer team, the women’s field hockey team aren’t millionaires. Not in the least.

Part of me says that is the major problem: there has never been a professional league for women’s field hockey in the United States since Constance Applebee brought out those few borrowed hockey sticks and some cricket balls onto the Cambridge Common in 1901.

Perhaps, if the States don’t make it into this Olympic cycle, that’s a change that must take place for the game’s long-term survival — not only on this continent, but on others.