By Al Mattei

ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Kelly Yates excuses herself in mid-conversation as her cell phone rings. Again.

"We start working on the next year's Gateway Classic," she explains after a few minutes, "the day after the previous one ends."

Yates, who coached St. Louis University through the 1980s in the early years of NCAA competition, wanted to help promote the sport at its grass roots when she took the reins at St. Louis Lafayette (Mo.) in 1990.

"When I was coaching at St. Louis University, we would hold tournaments here and get four to six teams to the Anheuser-Busch Sports Complex," Yates says. "And we would meet in St. Louis."

Eight years later, she started an eight-team invitational tournament to coincide with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. By 2006, the number of participating teams had grown to 42.

It's the nation's largest high-school invitational field hockey tournament, and as such, Yates has had to bear in mind the rules involved in interstate competition.

"They have to be in a state that is covered by the NFHS: right now, we're having a little trouble with the Texas schools, and Michigan can't travel more than a certain radius," Yates says. "These are sanctioned games; this is not a scrimmage tournament."

A good performance at the Gateway Invitational may help a team, not only in terms of team cohesion, but, depending on a particular state's formula, in determining whether a team can make the postseason.

"The great thing is that's it's early in the season or preseason for some teams," Yates says. "It's Labor Day weekend, there's that extra Monday for travel, and most schools haven't even gone into session yet."

The tournament is held outside of the St. Louis beltway at the Anheuser-Busch sports complex. Two turf fields are in full play from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The roster of teams which have participated in the tournament is diverse and impressive. California, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri have participated in matches this decade. Hundreds of athletes from dozens of high schools have come to the Gateway, but Yates believes that the best teams are of the most recent vintage.

"I think, when our team beat Villa Duchesne and drew Lake Forest (Ill.) last year, those were some of our most memorable games," she says. "Now, when it comes to the strongest teams, I thought Sacred Heart (Louisville, Ky.), Lake Forest, and Columbus (Ohio) Academy were the strongest I saw."