By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

The numbers that concern the U.S. women's national field hockey team can be put into a series of Harpers' Magazine-esque informational couplets:

Number of players invited to 2000 A-Camp: 100

Number of players on national-team squad: 16

Number of teams in Olympic qualifier at Milton Keynes: 10

Number of teams going to Olympics from qualifier: 5

Number of Tests played in 1999: 22

U.S. record in the last four games of '99: 0-4

The final number is the one that must concern national-team insiders the most. Team USA, after dropping the final game of a four-nations tournament in Sydney to world champion Australia, went on a three-game skid during a tour of England.

How the Americans fine-tune their team for the eight months leading to the 2000 Olympics is squarely on the shoulders of Team USA coach Tracey Belbin and her staff.

The fine-tuning looks to be done in several stages. The first week of "A" Camp, held at Rutgers University, features 66 scholastic and collegiate players, some of whom have U16 and U20 national-team experience.

The amazing thing about the first week of "A" Camp is its youth. Only about five or six high-schoolers normally get a chance to participate in a normal year, but the first week of the 1999-2000 "A" Camp featured 23 high-schoolers.

The relative inexperience in international play did not show when the younger group of "A" Campers practiced on their first afternoon. In drills, the players' intensity matched that of a trailing team going into the final minute of regulation of a state championship game.

While the first week of "A" Camp is mainly for choosing U-19 and U-21 teams, it is also a final chance for some of the older first-week invitees like Maria Whitehead (Wake Forest) and Sandra Soslau (Drexel) to make it through to the second week of "A" Camp, scheduled for Chula Vista, Calif. in January 2000.

There, the rostrum of players reads like a "Who's Who" from the national team the past decade or so. Veterans like Tracey Fuchs, Kelli James, Antoinette Lucas, Jill Reeve, and Kris Fillat make up the heart of the 34 invitees.

Some interesting names fill out the list. Amy Herz and Jessica Coleman, two players selected to the senior women's national team a year ago, only to play out the season on the U20 national team, are on the list of second-week invitees.

A couple of veteran national-teamers -- Iowa's Kristin Holmes and Andrea Weiland -- have returned to "A" Camp after leaving the program for a year or more.

But what should give hope for fans of American women's field hockey is the depth and youth of the player pool. Along with Coleman and Herz, there are 10 other college players on the second-week roster of invitees.

These include the stellar midfielder Carla Tagliente of the NCAA champion University of Maryland squad, North Carolina's Jana Toepel, Duke's Courtney Sommer, and Penn State's Tracey Larson, all of whom were in the player pool in 1999.

Some interesting choices mark the rest of the college invitees, including Vermonica Elzy (Southwest Missouri State), Rachel Barger (Delaware), Bridget Marchesi (Princeton), Rachel Dawson (Iowa), Coleen Krieger (James Madison) and Danielle DeCoste (Boston University). If any of the latter make the national team, they will be looking for their first caps.

Once the national and reserve team members are chosen, the team pool can change several times after the second week of "A" Camp. This is because there are two-week sessions scattered between an Argentina four-nations tournament, a tentative tour of South Africa and the Milton Keynes Olympic qualifier.

To cap off a blistering six months, Team USA will have a week-long camp, just before the deadline to declare the Olympic roster, designated as the "Olympic Trials."

The camp, scheduled for June 10-15 in Chula Vista, Calif., will not be an Olympic Trial unless the Americans can take home one of the five available qualifying slots at the 2000 Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

The Americans, in a pool with Germany, India, Ireland, and Spain, have a rough go of it. The United States' March 24 opener with Germany will set the tone for the entire effort; if the team loses by a large margin, it will be difficult to predict how the Americans might react.

If the team goes into a swoon, the next three games -- Ireland, 1992 Olympic champion Spain, and India loom in a 72-hour period.

The goal for the United States is to make the top two in its pool, which it is almost guaranteed to do with a win or draw against Germany.

Even if the Americans finish third or fourth in its pool, it still has a chance to win the final spot in the Olympic qualifier by winning one crossover game and the fifth-place game which will be played on April 1 -- April Fools' Day.

Team USA should certainly hope that this bit of scheduling is not an omen.