By Al Mattei


The announcement Jan. 14 of Tracey Belbin as head coach of the United States senior women's national field hockey team could have ramifications well into the year 2000. For most, the hope is that the ramifications go all the way through to October, when the Sydney Olympics are held.

The new head coach joined the team in February at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego, a scant few weeks after interim head coach Carina Benninga ran the latest "A" camp selectees through their paces at Rutgers University.

Belbin, a member of the Australian women's national team for nine years, won a gold medal in 1988 in Seoul and a silver in the 1990 World Cup. More recently, she has been a member of the Canberra Strikers of the National Women's Hockey League, helping the Queensland-based team to a second-place finish.

"During my playing career, I had always seen the U.S. as a very passionate and animated team," said Belbin in a statement released by the United States Field Hockey Association. "My recent time in the U.S. has shown that that passion and enthusiasm has not changed, but added to that is an unbelievable level of athleticism, speed and agility as well as a high level of commitment."

Belbin, who attended the 1998 "A" camp, has a pool of some 31 players on the national team and the reserve team to work with, some of whom have all of the above attributes.

However, a number of surprises dot the national-team roster for 1999. Several college-age players, including one freshman, made Benninga's initial list. These players, however, make up for their international inexperience with certain traits Benninga obviously saw during "A' camp. Whether Belbin buys into these traits will be immediately apparent: simply compare the Jan. 1 roster to the ones for Team USA's spring test matches and the Pan American Games.

While Team USA's ultimate priority for this year is to win the Pan Am Games and the Olympic berth that goes along with it, you wonder if the hiring of a former Hockeyroo is meant to send the message that the United States is placing an equally high priority on the Sydney four-nations tournament in September.

This tournament, a pre-Olympic event meant to test out the facility to be used for the 2000 Sydney Games, will serve several purposes with Belbin as coach. Her primary purpose to give the Stars and Stripes an insight as to how Australia, as World and Olympic champions, have dominated international women's field hockey in recent years.

Belbin's coaching career has included the direction and implementation of national-team programs while head coach for the women's team at the Queensland Academy of Sport. She had also served for the ACT Academy of Sport/Women's Hockey Australia in 1997-98.

During that time, she authored an important document on the use of systems to transform Australian attitudes in the approach to the game.

To this end, she juxtaposed the traditional Australian system -- two backs, three links, five attackers -- with British soccer's 4-4-2, and Italy's 1-3-3-3, recognizable in many field hockey programs in the United States, including the University of Maryland, Allentown (N.J.) and Hightstown (N.J.) Peddie School.

While discussing the strengths and weaknesses of systems play, Belbin builds to her ultimate thesis: sometimes the best system is no system. She discusses the obvious concept of building team strategy around available players, rather than the reverse. She envisions a team concept approaching the Dutch "total football" method of playing soccer, and the Maryland women's lacrosse team's "11 midfielders" system of the mid 1990s.

"Imagine a team of constantly overlapping defenders, of interchanging forwards and defenders allequally as fit and capable to play any position that they might find themselves in," she wrote in her paper. "Is it an idealistic concept? Is it possible to develop a team with that much hockey intelligence, and mutual understanding? And how do you change the mental approach of players and coaches alike, to accommodate this way of thinking?"

The premise, says Belbin, is to assemble players with interchangable traits, then use players in unfamiliar positions so that a player being moved will not only understand other positions, but can teach a new player what needs to be done in her previous role.

Belbin's role as Team USA coach, thusly, appears not to only be one of selecting Test teams and training them, but if necessary, to have them buy into a new way to play the game.

"The prospect of coaching the U.S. National team (is) very exciting for me," Belbin said. "It is a fantastic opportunity and a great challenge. I believe this team can do great things, and I only hope that as coach, I can steer them towards great achievements."

Belbin begins an eventful year in 1999. After relocating to San Diego, the 1993 graduate of the University of Queensland in Brisbane plans to marry in April before assembling Team USA for the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

A number of coaches had been seeking the full-time position of Team USA coach. Those believed to have been in the selection pool include Benninga and former India men's international star Cedric de Souza. In addition, the pool was believed to include members of the six coaching staffs from the 1998 USFHA Summer League: Old Dominion head coach Beth Anders, Virginia's head coach Missy Sanders, Princeton head coach Beth Bozman and assistant Jenn Ruggiero, Northeastern's Cheryl Murtaugh, Temple head coach Lauren Fuchs, Lehigh's Michelle Finnegan, Yale's Ainslee Press, and North Carolina assistant coach Leslie Lyness. 1