JENNINGS ALREADY GETTING ATTENTION AT AMERICAN
By Al Mattei
Scan the list of coaches and assistant coaches in Division I field hockey, and national-team players jump out at you. Beth Anders, for example, is the head coach at defending champion Old Dominion. Liz Tchou is the skipper at Duke. Michigan has three former Olympians: Peggy Storrar, Tracey Fuchs, and Marcia Pankratz.
But break out your list of Olympian coaches for the 1999 season, and a new and decidedly different head coach is on your list.
Meet Steve Jennings, 1996 Olympic vice-captain and presently the most-capped player on the men's national team. He is also the new head coach at American University, located in Washington, D.C.
Jennings' coaching situation is at once comfortable and restless. His comfort level comes from not only being an assistant at AU for a time, but from having graduated from Bethesda Walter Johnson (Md.), just a few miles up the road from the American campus.
His early experiences as a player were in the D.C. metropolitan area, learning under local teaching guru Steve Simpson, now an assistant coach at the University of Maryland.
"Steve was the one who recruited me and helped me get information about the game," Jennings says. "His passion was a driving force in teaching me how to live the game of field hockey."
It is therefore fitting that Maryland frequently hosts Eagles' practices, since the AU campus does not have artificial turf. Every day, white vans leave Northwest D.C. and take the half-hour trip to College Park, Md. to play on the three-acre recreational turf at the extreme north end of the Maryland campus.
While AU has a grass field at its disposal on Massachusetts Avenue in the District of Columbia, the team almost never plays on it.
"I think we now have the longest home winning streak in the nation: 25 games, all the way back to 1994," Jennings says, searching his memory. "But in order to play at the high international level that we want to play, we play on turf."
At the same time, however, Jennings has a restlessness, borne from his desire to get his young Eagles to play better. Almost like a field hockey bodhisattva, Jennings is trying to get his players to buy into the "total hockey" system he was exposed to not only with the men's national team, but playing for the Pinoké Hockey Club in The Netherlands.
"I tell you, Holland is what I call a hockey Valhalla," Jennings says. "You have 300 turf fields in an area the size of New Jersey."
But playing a constantly shifting, overlapping, wide-open style of play is much different from teaching it. Jennings' players are skilled and athletic, but almost always were taught never to stray from "their" position, even if there was usable space in the general area of a teammate.
"I think it's been a positive experience with the players, hearing what you have to say," Jennings says. "I think if they're successful at (the new system), they'll be successful. They just want to see that it's effective before they buy into it."
The two-a-day preseason road trips to Maryland have been a slight hardship on the Eagles, but Jennings sees it as nothing but another obstacle in his team's path to improvement.
"I want them to play with enthusiasm, heart, intensity, discipline, and competitive fire," Jennings says. "I want them to be flexible and use their brains in the process."
The Eagles had their first chance to do so on Aug. 30, 1999. It was a complicated affair, seeing as the oppinent was top-ranked University of Maryland, American's gracious preseason host. On the opposing bench was assistant coach Steve Simpson, Jennings' field hockey mentor. But behind the AU bench, a number of well-wishers were on hand.
You might have forgiven Jennings if he was somewhat tense. He worked off some of his energy while his players stretched and ran, shooting on an empty goal and roofing reverse flicks that only can be seen in Test matches. But when his goalkeepers were in the cage, he did not show off or frustrate them with his array of trick shots. Instead, he had his team warm them up in shooting drills.
"When the coaches are warming them up, the coaches are preparing them for shots they are likely to face," Jennings says. "When our forwards are going in and shooting, they are preparing as they need to prepare for the game. We, as coaches, want to set them up so that they're going to be in a successful position in the game."
As this game did not count in the standings for the Colonial Athletic Association, Jennings knew that the result would not necessarily be as important as the usual subjective criteria. That is, response to pressure, handling a setback, and sticking to a game plan.
"They may not know my overall philosophy and tactics yet on every situation," he says. "But that's part of the growing process."
Jennings' game-day coaching style is still very much in its formative stages. He does not shout like some passionate coaches, nor does he stand in stone silence like the analysts. He steps on the yellow line occasionally, reminding his players how and when to run to an open space and how to use it.
"My style," Jennings says, "is to be positively interactive with my players, and demanding from them what they can give, but not getting on them as being bad human beings. I understand that they are working hard."
The scoreboard eventually flashed Home 6, Guest 0. American's defeat is in line with its recent games with its neighbors to the east, and it is not unexpected, given the expectations heaped upon the opposing Terrapins for the 1999 season.
One day, it is expected that American will have high expectations of its own, at least if Jennings has his way.
"They're getting there, but it will take a little time," he says, "and a lot of practice."