CLUB-COUNTRY DEBATE SWINGS IN FAVOR OF "COUNTRY"
By Al Mattei
On Sept. 23, 2005, the No. 3 North Carolina field hockey team nested No. 5 Duke 2-0 in what was, by all accounts, a well-played and spirited match.
The next day, No. 1 Wake Forest traveled to No. 2 Maryland and won a 3-1 penalty-stroke shootout after a 2-2 draw in a gripping 105-minute match.
It was almost as though players, umpires, coaches, and fans didn't notice that there were several junior national-team callups on all four teams.
As the United States put together a strong seventh-place finish at the 2005 Junior World Cup, one big reason came up over and over again in dissecting the results.
Although it may be fair to cite the relative skill level nationwide amongst the elite players as a factor, the major difference between this World Cup and previous ones is the availability of top college players for national-team duty.
The "club vs. country" debate in athletic competition has been one which was limited pretty much to soccer, given the recent proliferation of multiple domestic and international competitions in the sport.
But when FIH moved its original date for the 1997 Junior World Cup at Seongnam, South Korea to September, university coaches started revoking permission for their players to attend the tournament, allowing only a handful players who were reserves for their teams to supplement a group of elite high-school athletes.
The team finished last of 12.
It wasn't much better in 2001 in Buenos Aires, Argentina when the Americans finished 14th out of 15 teams.
But in 2005, the Stars and Stripes sent an immediate, stunning message in pool play with a defeat of England, then a 2-2 draw with Holland.
"We knew we really had a good team, and if we stuck together and stuck to the game plan, we could play with anyone," said Team USA center midfielder Lauren Powley. "We needed to be persistent with our defense and pressure them."
Even though the Americans were drawn in with these two hockey nations, plus Australia and Argentina, the United States played extraordinary hockey -- to the point that the team was a scant inches away from playing for a medal.
Having the full selection of college players, plus high-schoolers of tremendous promise, apparently made a difference.
"We've gotten great commitment from all around, and (the international experience) is a win-win situation for them," says Wake Forest head coach and former U.S. international Jennifer Averill. "They'll have that continued passion to build upon these results."
"The coaches made a commitment a year and a half ago," says Maryland head coach and former U.S. international Missy Meharg. "Throughout the recruitment process, we let them know that if they wanted to go, that we would encourage and support their efforts with the national team. Our academic support services would help them with their studies."
Despite having a great selection of college athletes available for Junior World Cup duty, such as Powley and Wake Forest's Lauren Crandall (10 goals), the contributions of the high-schoolers on the roster cannot be overemphasized. Katie O'Donnell (Ambler Wissahickon, Pa.), Brianne O'Donnell (Fairview Village Methacton (Pa.), and Katelyn Falgowski (Wilmington St. Mark's, Del.) all had key roles to play for Tracey Fuchs' squad. Indeed, Katie O'Donnell's Test experience from the FIH Champions' Challenge was especially valuable.
"She's a very feisty forward," Powley says. "She is very good pressuring on defense, and she's very good to have on the field with you."
"We've got great organization working from the top, and great athletes working within the system," Averill says.