By Al Mattei
Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

VOORHEES, N.J. -- The first clue of how big the Oct. 23, 2004 field hockey game between Voorhees Eastern (N.J.) and Emmaus (Pa.) came at a convenience store on the three-mile drive up Haddonfield-Gibbsboro Road.

"A bunch of girls who simply can't lose," blares an above-the-fold six-column headline on the front of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The story mentions this website and its ranking of both teams.

The second clue can be found in the parking lot behind Eastern High School. Up on the light poles are those two-sleeved banners you find used in small towns as seasonal decoration. But at Eastern, they are used to proclaim the quality of the school, the "Home of the Model U.N.," and -- most tellingly -- "Field Hockey Ranked No. 1 In The Nation."

The third clue? The people who showed up. Not all were forest green-clad Hornet partisans or maroon and navy-wearing Eastern supporters, but there was outerwear from field hockey teams far and wide, and coaching staffs from as far away as Luzerne County, Pa. and Mercer County, N.J.

The game and all that surrounded it points to how technology -- speedy Internet connections, email, blogs, and the World Wide Web -- was the great enabler of the Eastern-Emmaus field hockey game. It helped in research, communications, and hype. It allowed fans to build up the game in the weeks before it was played, and to discuss the implications afterwards over a virtual water cooler.

Most importantly, it gave administrators and coaches a blueprint to improve their schedules. Both Danyle Heilig of Eastern and Susan Butz-Stavin of Emmaus were looking to bump up their non-conference schedules. Butz-Stavin's Hornets had moved from the cozy East Penn Conference into a much larger league, meaning that her non-conference schedule -- which she used towards the larger goal of developing her players -- was cut in half, meaning that she had to choose her opposition much more carefully.

Meanwhile, Heilig had started running out of ideas on how to find new opponents; while Olympic Conference have little choice but to play Eastern, she trolled all over the state trying to fill her non-league schedule. College preparatory schools, North Jersey teams, other traditional powerhouses. You name it, she tried to schedule the school.

"It got to the point where I had to go to the PIAA website after last year's tournament and looked up the state tournament brackets," Heilig says. "I called around and I was lucky to get Emmaus. And I was lucky to get them on the one Saturday that we had open."

Fittingly, the first word about an Eastern-Emmaus match spread through the Internet. An announcement was posted on a newspaper conglomerate-owned site Feb. 25, 2004, a full 240 days before the match was played.

The Internet also drove the hype about the game. Accusations about sportsmanship and fair play were made on virtual bulletin boards even as both schools racked up 35 wins and almost 250 goals on the way to the showdown between two undefeated teams.

Ultimately, however, the game was settled on the field, and both coaches and sets of parents seemed to have the attitide, "It's about time." And The Founder received some thanks for having encouraged the teams to look outside their normal competition areas.

But this site has, ever since 1997, made it known that to make the sport better, it needs more than just the tournaments run under the auspices of our national governing body.

It needs the full faith, cooperation, and grass roots development programs found in American schools. Field hockey needs its De La Salle football, or Peddie swimming, or St. Benedict's soccer as a national powerhouse in order to in turn make the women's national field hockey team a top powerhouse again.

There is room for more competition, more challenge. And the model is, oddly enough, less than 30 miles from the Eastern campus. Trenton, N.J. is the site of the annual Prime-Time Shootout, the most prestigious boys' scholastic basketball tournament in the nation and showcase for future NBA hopefuls such as Dwight Howard, Sebastian Telfair, and LeBron James.

Might the Eastern-Emmaus rivalry start such a thing in field hockey?

You never know.