... AND A KICKING BACK SHALL LEAD THEM

By Al Mattei
Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

Two hours before a Sept. 29, 2005 home game with Temple University, Rutgers field hockey players readied for pre-game warmups in their team room. Red and white mesh training jerseys were on shoulders, socks were pulled up, anticipation was building.

Then, head coach Liz Tchou entered the room amongst the usual locker-room clatter.

"Ros isn't playing."

The room fell silent. The remaining members of the Scarlet Knights team looked at each other. Now what? their expressions seemed to say.

The team went out to their Busch Campus turf field to warm up, but the routine that evening lacked one important ingredient: shooting drills to loosen up the goalkeeper.

That's because Rosalyn Wentko, the only goalkeeper on the Rutgers roster, had suffered a mild concussion earlier in the 2005 season. That was compounded with a ball to the head in pregame warmups against St. Joseph's University, a scant four days before the Temple match.

To her credit, Wentko played the entire St. Joseph's game. But owing to previous neurological episodes amongst athletes at the school, the Rutgers training staff was extremely cautious: one more blow to the head could mean the end of the game, the entire season, a field hockey career.

Tchou relayed this information to the team before the warmup for the Temple match, and added a challenge.

"This is the hand that we are dealt," Tchou recalls telling the team. "We have got to deal with it."

Rutgers would have to play with no goalkeeper. Instead, the team elected to use an 11th field player, wearing a distinctively-colored jersey, as a kicking back.

Allowances for the use of a kicking back are written into the rules of international and NCAA field hockey. Coaches trailing by a couple of goals have been known to pull their regular goalkeeper in the final 10 minutes of a match to put added offensive pressure on the opposition. This strategy, however, has rarely proven successful except in the tight confines of the 6-on-6 indoor game.

Why? Many coaches believe that the momentum of a game can be changed by simply sending a couple of fresh attacking players into a match or by sending more players into the attacking third rather than go with the desparate tactic of removing the goalkeeper for a kicking back.

Too, the strategy, improperly executed in an era where there is no offside, can leave a team exposed on defense -- and more than one coach would rather have a padded goalkeeper coming at a breakaway ball-carrier, foam leg pads at the ready, rather than a kicking back with just her stick, her wiles, and a prayer.

Moreover, a team down a couple of goals in the dying minutes of a match, when this strategy could be most often employed, has problems an extra field player cannot solve.

But Rutgers and its players are cut from a different cloth. Tchou, a veteran of the 1996 Olympic Games, has learned about teamwork and sacrifice first hand. She put her life on hold to train for an entire year with Team USA in Atlanta, working in a Chinese restaurant to make ends meet.

Throughout her international experiences, Tchou is used to the international roster limit of 16 players. Although NCAA teams can have as many players on their rosters as they see fit, Rutgers has had a short bench since Tchou came to the Rutgers program in 2003.

In the Temple game, the bench became even shorter. The Knights met Temple with just three available substitutes, since freshman fullback Kim Scott had to be pressed into service as the team's kicking back. A helmet, special jersey, and chest protector were procured for her use.

The team was asked to hold its shape, deny Temple any space to receive the ball or build up attacks, and shorten the game by holding onto the ball with its individual skills.

"They did a great job," Tchou says. "They only gave up three corners the whole game, and possessed the ball really well. We held them to 0-0 at the half."

But that didn't last for long after the interval. Rachel Barber opened the account for the Owls in the 48th minute.

The goal did not shake the Rutgers players' belief. Instead of shoulders slumping, the Knights kept playing, kept believing, knowing that one mistake at the wrong time would lead to an opposing thrust on a goal with no goalkeeper in the cage. Rutgers' ball-possession strategy began to wear on Temple towards the final minutes as they kept their opponents chasing after the ball.

And in the final 10 minutes, Rutgers struck. Jocelyn Mattina (60th minute) and Kara Spector (68th) scored the necessary goals to give the Scarlet Knights a 2-1 victory.

It is hard to find a recorded instance, in a first-class field hockey match anywhere in the world, of a winning team used a kicking back for an entire game. It is likely to be even more difficult to find mention of such a feat in the annals of American collegiate field hockey.

"We scored in the last 11 minutes, and just played awesome together," Tchou says. "The kids played with incredible heart and played smart field hockey."

The 2005 Rutgers University team, in this one match, started to show a sense of self-belief that has not been present along the banks of the Raritan in some time. The last time the Scarlet Knights qualified for the NCAA Tournament was 1986.

"It's huge for our program, with these young players, to get a win like that," Tchou says. "It shows that we can put in anyone, anywhere, at any time, and get the job done."

Wentko would return to the team in early October to resume her goalkeeping duties. Ironically, Rutgers would lose the next five games with their stalwart sophomore in the cage as the team swooned to a record of seven wins and 12 defeats.

It's a record that cannot dim the memories of a late September game in which a team held together for an improbable, if not impossible, win.

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