QUALIFYING TOURNAMENT AN EIGHT-HOUR CARNIVAL OF ACTION
By Al Mattei
On a wintry weekend in February 1999, a qualifying tournament for the United States Field Hockey Association's national indoor championship was held at The Lawrenceville (N.J.) School.
The site was Lavino Field House, a giant multi-purpose facility with several auxiliary gyms, a swimming pool, and an ice rink abutting a central space lined for tennis, indoor track, and volleyball.
But the space instead featured the four-inch boards necessary for indoor field hockey. Three fields were sectioned off, and the sounds of running, sticks lightly caressing hockey balls, and the occasional whistle were heard in this day-long maelstrom of color, sound, and action.
Teamwise, several of the clubs represented at the qualifier had already qualified by virtue of placings at the 1998 indoor national tournament. Some hockey clubs, notably the Spirit Eagles, used the tournament for live game experience, as well as to choose the best players to fill out the team for which the Eagles' Pool J berth is reserved.
Other clubs, like the Jersey Girls, needed to win or place second in the tournament in order to qualify. Otherwise, their application would be forwarded to USA Field Hockey to be placed in a lottery.
The 16 teams present were, for the most part, all-star squads from more than one school. Some of them were regional, like the High Styx from the greater Lebanon, Pa. area. The Washington Wolves featured players from Maryland, including one of the best upcoming players from the Class of 2001, Carey Fetting-Smith. The Storm Troopers Lightning featured Pennsylvania talents such as Erin Kruis and Kellie Kulina.
While none of the teams were as physically dominant as the legendary Throughbreds club of the late 1990s, there was one team which was on the name of everybody's lips: Spirit of USA North.
The names on the North roster are ones which are on virtually every Division I head coach's top 10 lists: April Fronzoni, Jenee Doto, Katie Jo Gerfen, Lindsey Domers, Cory Picketts. And, of course, winger Katie Nicholson, who may be one of best American scholastic prospect in the past 15 years.
However, a relative newcomer to the indoor ranks was also having a good tournament. For the first time, a group from Newtown Council Rock (Pa.) sent a team, which it is allowed to do under Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) rules. The Rock Blue Bombers managed to win its first two games, and needed a win in its third pool contest to secure a berth in the semifinal round.
They needed to beat another of the "name" teams in the tournament: the Spirit of USA South team, which had a number of fine players on its roster. But the Blue Bombers were not intimidated, even as it needed a goal in the final few seconds of play to avoid a tie, which would have sent South into the Final Four.
A dramatic individual effort from Sarah Burdette, the amazing all-around midfielder, came only about four or five seconds from the final horn, allowing The Rock to play for a berth in the national tournament.
The Blue Bombers and Spirit of USA North, the two teams which were getting the most attention, would play seperately in order to get into the championship. Both teams won good games in order to get into the final.
The championship game did not have the same dramatics as the bronze-medal matchup between the High Styx and the Storm Troopers Lightning. After the teams tied at the end of the 30-minute game, the teams went to strokes. It took somewhere around 10 rounds of strokes before the High Styx took third-place honors.
And with that, it was over. The High Styx had satisfaction in third place, the Rock Blue Bombers took an indoor national qualifying berth in the first tournament they have ever entered, and Spirit of USA North, showing class, skill and grace, won the tournament and a berth in a loaded pool of teams.
Epilogue: Of the 16 teams entered into the Lawrenceville qualifier, an amazing 11 made it into the age-group national indoor tournament, either by virtue of previous berths, earned berths, or the lottery.