FOR 'A'-CAMPERS, IT'S ALL ABOUT MAKING THE SHOW
By Al Mattei
When the 2000 U.S. women's national field hockey team was chosen out of "A" Camp, it was picked with a three-month time frame in mind -- the three months between the beginning of the year and the Olympic qualifier at Milton Keynes.
But the 2001 "A" Camp is being picked with a three-year time frame -- the three years between the beginning of 2001 and the Pan American Games.
Those in the senior women's national team pool after the 2000 "A" Camp will have a lot asked of them. They will be asked to maintain a certain level of play and a certain chemistry for up to four years. And, most importantly, they are being asked to make "The Show."
Whether that show is the 2002 World Cup or Champions' Trophy or the 2004 Olympics, qualification for the major worldwide competitions is the top team priority.
The failure of Team USA to make the Sydney Olympics, coupled with a "pay-for-performance" philosophy which started with controversial U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Norm Blake, makes every game and every tournament extremely important -- a battle for survival, fought 70 minutes at a time.
To assist in the Americans' effort, plans were made for a full residency camp for the women's national team pool -- one similar to the residency programs which made the U.S. women's soccer team and U.S. swim teams extremely successful in the latter half of the 1990s.
The first residency center is in the greater Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia, where fine facilities already exist, including Foreman Field at Old Dominion University -- an ideal site, by the way, for some domestic Test matches. It is also the tentative site for the 2001 "A" Camp.
The American team enters residency after its first chance of making a "show" -- in this case, the 2002 World Cup. The Americas Cup -- no, not the sailing trophy -- was up for grabs in Jamaica, as well as a possible berth for Perth 2002. Of the 10 teams in the Americas Cup, one team -- Argentina -- was already qualified for the World Cup, since it won the silver medal in Sydney.
Since Argentina won the America's Cup, Germany (the seventh-place team in Sydney) qualified for the World Cup; the Americans, though placing second behind the qualifying Argentines, did not.
Therefore, the Americans will be playing in a qualification tournament to be held in late September in France. The job will not be difficult, since the top seven teams will go to Perth 2002. Nine of the 16 berths are spoken for, and it is unlikely that there will be any changes in status for those teams, since every continental berth is presently secure until the start of the World Cup.
In December, the Americans will be playing in what is called The Champions' Challenge. The Stars and Stripes cross sticks with South Korea, South Africa, Germany, England, and host India. The winner of the Champions' Challenge will get a berth in the 2002 Champions' Trophy. That team exchanges places with the relegated sixth-place team in the 2001 Champions' Trophy.
These competitions will provide valuable experience for a 2002 World Cup team, 2003 Pan Am Games team, or 2004 Olympic Team. This is probably why the 2000 "A"-Camp roster was 125 players strong. Most of the players will be forming the U-18 and U-21 national teams, and the roster will provide valuable scouting information for Team USA head coach Tracey Belbin and her staff for the next four years.
The athletes entering "A"-camp ranged from the experienced (Tracey Fuchs, Antoinette Lucas) to the present stars (Cindy Werley, Kris Fillat) to the future stars (Lori Hillman, April Fronzoni). However, the national-team pool coming out of "A"-Camp was about 25. That number dwindled to 20 going into the April residency camp.
The residents' task in France will not not easy. The opposition for the Americans includes a British team looking to find its Olympic form again, a very good Canadian team, an Indian team that gave the Americans fits at Milton Keynes 2000, and decent teams from Ireland, Japan, Scotland, and Zimbabwe.
The latter could make for an interesting situation in a classification match if former NCAA scoring champion Sally Northcroft (Ball State) gets the call to play.
The Americans do need to finish in the top seven to get into the World Cup, and they have every right to think they can, especially with a field which has host France, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Lithuania, Russia, and The Ukraine.
Qualifying for the 2004 Olympics, however, will be somewhat more difficult. Though two teams have been added to the 2004 Olympic women's field hockey tournament (for a grand total of 12), the extra berths are almost certainly going to be spoken for. Australia is the defending champion, Greece is the host. There will be a European, Asian, African, Pan-Am, and Oceanic champion. That leaves a minimum of five open berths for the 2004 Olympic Qualifier.
That number may be increased if Australia chooses to defend its Oceania title, or if Greece (as host, it fields a team), by some miracle, wins the European title.
In short, for the United States women's program, its top priority coming out of "A"-Camp will be a constant fight. Berths for international championships, as well as respect from the new United States Olympic Committee brass, are at stake every time out.