By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle

The selections for Team USA for the 1999 international field hockey season were conducted in a more casual atmosphere than usual, despite the diminished position of American field hockey in the world.

The United States has not yet qualified for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, but it is in a slightly better position -- for not yet having secured a tournament berth -- than in past Olympic cycles.

Of the 10 available slots for the Olympics, only two are spoken for. Host Australia has qualified thrice over, since it is not only the host, it is the defending champion as well as the winner of the 1998 World Cup.

The Korean women's team is in, having won the Asian Games in December.

Despite the fact that Australia has taken three available berths has taken the urgency off the Stars and Stripes' challenge, but only to a small degree. Team USA goes into the 1999 international season building towards the Pan American Games as its major focus. It cannot finish second in the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnepeg, Manitoba to the already-qualified Argentina squad, which had been the case in Pan-Am qualifying for the 1997 Junior World Cup.

But there was a different kind of urgency in the Team USA camp. For one thing, the women's national team has not had a permanent coach since the resignation of Pam Hixon.

Further, the Stars and Stripes' eighth-place finish at the 1998 World Cup in Utrecht meant that the women's national team, picked at Rutgers University during the Christmas/New Year's holiday period not only had to be competitive, it had to have the stuff to win.

If the United States does not win the Pan American Games gold medal, the United States will have to participate in what could be a free-for-all in the "last chance" Olympic qualifier in Milton Keynes, England in the last week of March, 2000 -- a scant six months before Sydney. As many as six spots could be up for grabs. There must be a Pan-Am and a European qualifier chosen in 1999, as neither region was represented in the Olympic pool at the beginning of the year.

There is an Oceania qualifier, with Australia as the heavy favorite. If the Hockeyroos win, it will boot quality teams like New Zealand into Milton Keynes.

With all of this in mind, the team that interim coach Carina Benninga and staff selected for the 1999 international season is one of veterans. As usual, the team should be led by all-time greats Tracey Fuchs (Centereach, N.Y.) and Kelli James (Medford, N.J.). The veterans on Team USA are also familiar to those in the know, like 1996 Olympians Jill Reeve (Ann Arbor, Mich.), Antoinette Lucas (Carrboro, N.C.), and Christine DeBow (College Park, Md).

There are a mere seven U.S. college players on the 18-woman roster, and some of them are not familiar to long-time Team USA fans.

Take, for example, Jessica Coleman (Oceanport, N.J.). She was not in the University of Virginia's lineup for the Cavaliers' NCAA Tournament run in 1998, as there was plenty of talent in her team's back six. However, she made the team ahead of some of her more heralded defensive mates.

Another surprise was Penn State's Tracey Larson (Morrisville, Pa.), whose versatility enabled her to make the team ahead of teammates like Traci Anselmo, and former U-20 national team alternate Heather Gorlaski (Middletown, Pa.), who was the Big Ten Conference's MVP.

Oddly enough, the Atlantic Coast Conference MVP did not make the senior women's national team, either. Virginia's Lori Mastropietro (Richboro, Pa.) has made the team in 1997 and parlayed that experience into a spectacular 1998 campaign for her in the World Cup, for the USFHA Summer League, and the Virginia Cavaliers.

Mastropietro, along with 12 other talented women, form the senior women's national reserve team, which is a larger group of alternates than is usual. Members of this team are likely to step in whilst the United States participates in games during the U.S. college season, such as the Sydney four-nations tournament in September 1999, which serves as a dry run for the Olympic organizers.

Along with Mastropietro on the reserve team are 1998 national teamers Nancy Pelligreen (University of North Carolina) and Carla Tagliente (Marathon, N.Y./University of Maryland). The latter is a major, major surprise because her world-class finishing ability and game sense almost certainly should have given her a berth on the senior team.

The goalkeeping throughout the national-team system seems to not have gone the way most people thought in the mid 1990s. The four goalkeepers picked for national-team service for this year are Peggy Storrar and Jana Withrow of the University of North Carolina, Andrea Weiland and Lisa Cellucci of the University of Iowa, and Stacey Smith of Old Dominion.

Missing from "A" camp selections this year were several expected names, like former U-21 national teamers Meris Burton (Wilmington, Del.) and Gia Fruscione (Princeton, N.J/Princeton Univ.), as well as 1997 first-team All-American Danielle Vile (Medford, N.J./Univ. of Connecticut). Also missing was 1998 first-team All-American Jamie Hill (Newtown, Pa./Old Dominion), for personal reasons.

The U-20 national team, also selected at "A" camp, gives a look into the future of the American game. The word which seems to come to mind is "youth."

This team features a number of 1998 scholastic All-Americans on its roster. This includes Dalinda Banuelos (Escondido, Calif.), Carissa Messimer (Mountaintop, Pa.), Katie Jo Gerfen (Lititz, Pa.), Katie Nicholson (Clarksburg, N.J.), Alison Stewart (Wilmington, Del.), Jessica Rose (Lititz, Pa.), April Fronzoni (Plymouth, Pa.), Kristi Gannon (Escondido, Calif.), Chrissy Ashley (Kingston, Pa.) and Meredith Keller (Wilmington, Del.) -- none of whom who are even close to being 20 years of age.

Also on the U-20 team is half of an interesting human interest story. Robyn Kenney, the sophomore from Boston University, made the squad, while her brother Justin, a high-school senior from Flemington Hunterdon Central (N.J.), made the U-20 men's team at a seperate "A" camp in Moorpark, Calif.

It is believed to be the first time that a brother and sister have made USFHA-sponsored field hockey teams in the Futures era of national-team selection.

And, for the first time in a long time, a player from another country made a United States women's national team. Melanie Meerschwam (Amstelveen, The Netherlands) made the U-20 squad. The veteran of past Maccabiah Games squads from Holland was the only member of 1998 NCAA runner-up Princeton University to make a U.S. national side.