MAJOR CHANGES IN STRUCTURE AND APPROACH EVIDENT AT 2003 FUTURES TOURNAMENT
By Al Mattei
Founder, Top Of The Circle.com
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Nancy McHale watched last year's U-16 USA Field Hockey National Futures Tournament and noticed that something was amiss amongst those teams which had U-14 players assigned to them.
"When the U-14s played with the 16s, they struggled a little bit physically," said McHale, whose youth development resume is very strong. "There were good players in the 14s, but when they got with the 16s -- some of which are going to be 11th graders -- that's a big difference. And as the days wore on, the 14s got weaker, because we have to play them the same amount of time.
"Only some regions had U-14s in them, so they were almost getting penalized for having the 'babies' playing in their region. So, we decided to go with an Under-14 tournament."
The 2003 National Futures Tournament therefore was a revelation which was about two or three years in coming. USA Field Hockey has conducted national indoor championships in the U-14 division in recent years, and is beginning to target younger and younger athletes for elite development.
"There's a huge youth movement going on," McHale said. "Some of the kids we have now as seniors, who have had the opportunity to play at a high level younger, you can really see the difference as they get older. And I really believe that's where we want to go.
The inaugural U-14 tournament was a good show. The four teams -- easily identifiable because of their yellow and white jerseys -- were being forced to adapt to a much, much higher level of competition than they are used to in the fall. Too, the top three teams in the six rounds of pool play were separated by two points; tiebreakers had to be used to determine who would play for the gold medal.
McHale's USA South team (having no player coming from further south than St. Louis) played the USA West team (an equal geographical misnomer with no player further west than Chelsea, Mich.) in the championship final.
There, USA West head coach Lauren Erlichman gave her team a very sophisticated penalty corner script -- at least, as compared to that given most American 14-year-olds.
"We took our name, 'West,' and assigned corners to each of the four letters," said Erlichman, a sophomore-to-be at Princeton University. "And they did a great job of remembering all of them."
Erlichman was one of many coaches who gave her teams a number of set plays in the 2003 tournament. In the past NFT coaches would often never assign more than one or two corner plays for such a short event.
However, success in the 2003 tournament came right down to corner execution. Such was the case with USA West. In the final half-minute of regulation, the team's "E" corner resulted in a Courtney Tavener goal. The assist by Hollis Barber was her third point of the match.
"Our words for the day were 'everything,' and 'huffert,'" said Erlichman. "That's hustle/effort, when I was trying to speak English and it didn't come out right; we invented a new word."
The result negated a fine performance by South forward Michelle Vittese, whose cool demeanor in the circle and amazing speed in the midfield ripped apart the West defensive third. She had a top-class breakaway goal and set up another.
"She's something, isn't she?" McHale said. "They gave me 14 forwards, but they learned how to play as a team in just three days. Each day we learned something, and they were asked to fix one thing each day."
"We didn't change our game plan a all, trying to double-team anybody," Erlichman said. "We just told them to go out and play. Some players tend to get nervous if you point out just one girl. But we've had some great players in this tournament."
S: Michelle Vittese (fg), 12th minute.
W: Brittney Commings (Hollis Barber) (fg), 15th.
S: Morgan Clark (Vittese) (fg), 22nd.
S: Courtney Plaster (Barber) (fg), 30th.
S: Courtney Tavener (Barber) (pc), 37th.
S: Heather Abbott 4.
W: Anna Cooke 1.
In the U-16 title game between Eastern Shore and West Chester, the result was determined by, yes, a corner.
This time, it was a fine play from Amanda Sagan from Pennsylvania state champion Lehman Lake-Lehman (Pa.). She saw that an intended diagonal pass after a duffed flick attempt was going into an unexpected area, and that it was up to her to rescue the ball.
"No defenders really ran to the ball, so I thought I would take advantage," Sagan said. "I pulled around one defender and hit the ball as hard as I could."
The goal was a buildup from some ingenious corner play. Head coach Sylvia Shunk had called for a flick on the first West Chester short corner. A very strong scoop by Melissa Stefaniak cleared the entire Eastern Shore corner defense unit, only to glance off the far post and over the end line for a 16-yard free hit.
"We saw they weren't prepared for the first flick," Shunk said. "We were trying to get an aerial if we could, if it wasn't dangerous."
Eastern Shore mounted a late really, but the fine play of forwards Christina Boarman, Marine Graham, and Sara Eaton did not result in a goal.
"This was a hard-fought game," Shunk said. "They played a lot like us, but we were able to go wider than they did up the right side of the field."
D: Amanda Sagan (pc), 21st minute.
WC: Rebecca Weaver 2, Andrea Mainiero 1.
ES: Rachael Drummonds 2, Alyson Blum 2.
In the U-19 finals, Lancaster got a pair of magnificent goals 1:22 apart from Jill Civic and Lindsay Thomas in besting State College 3-1. It was the second straight U-19 championship for the Pennsylvania region, whose teams dominated play while taking three of the top four slots in the age group.
Matt Soto, who coached a U-16 team to victory in 2002, had been looking to repeat the effort for 2003, but his State College team found a considerable roadblock in Lancaster goalkeeper Kristen Hodavance. She made five saves in the first half and kept a very powerful team -- one which included two of her high school teammates from Emmaus (Pa.) -- off the scoreboard.
But it was the Lancaster offense that seized the day. Once Civic (yet another Emmaus player) opened the scoring, Thomas knocked in a reverse lift shot that amazed many of the spectators at the Olympic Training Center.
"That goal was beautiful," said Lancaster head coach Kelly Brenninger. "Actually, I thought this game was going to be closer; this was not a 3-1 game."
Once corner inserter Jennifer Long received a wide-open return pass in the game's 17th minute to stake Lancaster to a 3-0 lead, there were serious doubts on the State College sideline.
State College's Alyssa Nye got a deserved goal on a late penalty corner, but it was not enough to prevent Lancaster from taking the gold. It was the second straight U-16/U-19 double for Pennsylvania in the NFTs.
"All of the teams from Pennsylvania played really well," Brenninger said. "And they don't care who scores, as long as you put it in the cage."
L: Jill Civic (pc), 12th minute.
L: Lindsay Thomas (Courtney Geissler) (pc), 13th.
L: Jennifer Long (fg), 17th.
SC: Alyssa Nye (pc), 27th.
SC: Briana Koza 1, Juliana Simon 5.
L: Erin Hanshue 1, Kristin Hodavance 5, defensive 2.