JUSTIN AND ROBYN KENNEY MAKE RESPECTIVE U-20 NATIONAL TEAMS

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle

At the end of 1998, there occurred a pair of gatherings more than 3,000 miles apart which involved choosing field hockey teams to represent the United States in international competition. The U.S. Field Hockey Association (USFHA) conducted its national-team selection camps in New Brunswick, N.J. for the women, and in San Diego for the men.

The results of both camps impacted the Kenney household, located in the heart of Hunterdon County, N.J.

Robyn Kenney, at the women's "A" camp at Rutgers University, was the one expected to do well. The athletic midfielder had helped Flemington Hunterdon Central (N.J.) win three state championships in four years at thanks to her intelligence and fitness.

Having won all-state honors her junior and senior years, she went to Boston University with an athletic scholarship. Her play got the attention of national-team selectors and the United States Field Hockey Association (USFHA) Summer League, where she played with the New Jersey-based Blue Team with distinction in 1998.

After several days of two-a-day drills and scrimmages at "A" camp, she was selected to the United States U-20 national team.

On the other coast, at the Olympic Training Center, her younger brother Justin was trying to attain the same goal, making a national team. The high-school senior, however, did not have the same level of constant exposure to the game, except through Robyn and his younger sister Heather.

However, despite playing the game a scant three years, the high-school senior at Hunterdon Central duplicated his sister's success, winning a slot on the American men's U-20 national team at the men's national "A" camp.

The situation is the first time a brother and sister have simultaneously represented the United States on any level of field hockey in the Futures era of national-team selection.

"We talked to each other on New Year's Eve, before we found out whether we made the team," Justin Kenney said. "We didn't really speculate whether we made it or not. I was quite surprised when I made it."

"This was something I have aspired to for a long time," Robyn said. "I can't say I was surprised to make the team: it was something I've been trying to focus on."

While the two have achieved a similar position in national-team terms, their journeys have been quite different. Robyn Kenney has enjoyed the full wealth of playing opportunities that many young women have in the United States: Futures play in the spring and early summer, camp workouts in the summer, a scholastic or college season in the autumn, sometimes paralleling with club play.

Justin Kenney, however, has run into some problems trying to play field hockey in a nation where field hockey is thought of as a regional women's sport. Having caught the "hockey bug" playing with his sisters, he chose to pursue playing opportunities in the American club scene.

"It was about three years ago when I gave Justin his first stick," Robyn said. "He went Sundays to Montclair State to play mixed field hockey, and he went faithfully."

Even outside of the pickup games, there were plenty of chances for the three siblings to get together and hit the ball around.

"We have about an acre in back of our house," said Heather, a sophomore at Hunterdon Central. "And we got a goal in our back yard last year."

Justin did not go the same route as other male school-aged field hockey players looking for more playing opportunities who chose to sue the school district to play on the girls' team. Rather, Justin looked to former U.S. men's national team member Bobby Issar, who, as coach of the Spirit of USA Eagles, had coached Robyn on the U-19 club level.

"He's learned most of his skills with Spirit," Robyn said. "He plays as much as possible."

"He works hard, like all of the Kenneys," said Hunterdon Central field hockey coach Sandy Chronic. "He's taken advantage of all of the opportunities presented to him, which is unusual in this country because most of them have been reserved for women."

These days, Justin is the unlikeliest of field hockey celebrities at school. He did not get much recognition as a cross country runner at school, but has gotten a slightly larger measure of fame as a field hockey player.

"Most people don't know, because our school is so big," Justin said. "But my friends ask me more and more questions about it, and give me a little more respect that way. Sometimes, when I walk in a room, people are like, 'Hey, look, it's the athlete.' "

Another reason he is an unlikely field hockey celebrity at Hunterdon Central is because of the school's run of three state field hockey championships between 1993 and 1996. Robyn Kenney is the first member of any of those powerful squads to make a U.S. national team.

"I think what made Robyn so good was her creativity," Chronic said. "She was able to cut off the passes and the passing lanes. And now, she's working with Sally Starr (at Boston University) which has really has helped her."

But having two national-teamers in the same household means that, when the three siblings get together for an informal hit-around in the back yard, there is one which has not yet gotten that level of recognition.

"I've been telling Heather, 'Now, it's your turn,' " Justin said.

And with Heather Kenney also working with the Eagles team and Issar, don't be surprised if it happens sooner than you think. 1