ST. MARY'S TOUR IS AN EYE-OPENER
By Al Mattei
A storm blew in from the Cape of Good Hope in late August and early September of 2004.
It was a storm that came in from all directions, forcing those in its path to gather everything together and hope it didn't take the roof.
This force of nature is a group of 20 young women wearing the field hockey uniform of St. Mary's School of Johannesburg, South Africa.
St. Mary's spent two weeks in the United States touring cities in the mid-Atlantic region, beginning with a 15-0 win against a scrimmage team at Princeton (N.J.) and ending with 2-0 win over East Chapel Hill (N.C.) at the Sun Devil Tournament at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Virginia Beach, Va.
St. Mary's showed a combination of skill and tactical ability that didn't just vanquish opponents; they overwhelmed them.
The results speak for themselves; in the seven games played in the United States, the the tourists conceded just one goal, that in an 8-1 win at Rockville Magruder (Md.). And consider that the game was played on grass, a surface completely foreign to South African field hockey. The Saints also won on Princeton's FieldTurf as well as the Bermuda grass at Richmond St. Catherine's (Va.)
"If nothing else," says St. Catherine's head coach Don Warner, "it helps our learning curve."
"When we played on the grass, it was very different," says Saints center forward Shelley Russell. "We don't play grass anymore. At all."
Another adjustment the team had to make was to the seemingly endless labyrinth of rules and regulations that head coach Gail Murray and the Saints had to negotiate in the United States.
"I didn't realize how much legislation governs school sport," she says. "Mind you, we do have rules and regulations, but at home, it's more about playing the game, and about exposing the kids to the game of hockey as often and as much as we can."
Finding competition in the days leading up to the tournament meant having to work around the schedules of some teams which had not yet begun their seasons.
There were numerous other rules that never even entered the thinking of the minds of the players, including the slight rules modifications for field hockey under the National Federation.
"I can't believe that in some states, you only have 12 games in a season," Murray says. "We can do that in a month. And having as little as one hour of scrimmage time before a season in New Jersey is ludicrous."
St. Mary's has won all but one interscholastic field hockey championship the last 24 years, and the team can schedule as many games as it likes in order to form its season against its dozen or so rivals in and around Johannesburg.
"We want the kids to play," Murray says. "At the end of the day, it's about the kids having fun. As soon as you limit their time on a field, you start to interfere about what it's all about."
But one thing that St. Mary's has that no varsity field hockey program in the United States has is a multi-layered developmental system, which can include a varsity, two sub-varsity teams, and three or four teams in the U-16, U-15, and U-14 age groups.
And no other varsity field hockey program has a national-team coach and former Test captain as its school's vice-headmistress. That woman is Ros Howell, who guided South Africa to the 2004 Olympics after leading the South African stickwomen through an unforgettable American tour in 2001.
"She supports our program 100 percent," Murray says.
The value of this kind of development showed during the tournament, held on the hockey-specific fields of the Olympic Training Center. The Saints passed with great vision, held the ball with amazing aplomb, overlapped and covered for each other beautifully, and generally wowed the throngs of fans with their prowess.
And it just so happened that Sun Devil Tournament participant East Chapel Hill, one of the better teams in the United States in just its eighth year of existence, was watching intently.
The Wildcats were being coached by former South African international Donnae Farrington in 2004. She reflects the same kind of coaching ethic that Murray does for St. Mary's School.
"Our whole focus, through the season, is concentrating on practice, because how we practice is how we are going to play our match, so that in a match, there's not too many surprises," Farrington says. "I don't need to be standing on the sidelines, during a high-performance match situation, barking orders. I can rather say, 'This is our strategy, this is what our tactic is, go out and execute.' For what we have in skill and talent, it's all about how we put it together during a match."
So, while the final was being played out at the Olympic Training Center, both sidelines were remarkably quiet, as if heeding the international rule against coaching.
But as the darkness fell behind a gorgeous Venetian sunset, St. Mary's was having pictures taken while receiving plaudits from not only their host families in Virginia Beach, but from the St. Catherine's team, which had played them earlier in the week.
The St. Mary's team then left the Olympic Training Center with lots of memories, the respect of its American peers, and the possible budding of life-long friendships.
But the team couldn't leave with the first-place trophy.
The rules wouldn't allow it.