MOTHER NATURE THE BIG WINNER IN FUTURES TOURNAMENT

By Al Mattei
Founder, Top Of The Circle.com

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- As dark clouds swept across the horizon over the vast expanse of the Virginia Beach Sportsplex like ink in a bowl of clear water, just about everyone knew what to expect by the final day of the 2004 National Futures Tournament.

Pfoooooooot! Pfoooooooot! Pfoooooooot!

A klaxon of air horns, and the announcement over the speakers, "Please clear the venue," prompted parents, pets, and players to perambulate to the parking lot.

Matt Soto and Team Scranton waited patiently on a berm outside the closed gates of the U.S. Olympic Field Hockey Training Center, waiting for Sunday's second rain delay to end, but by then, the schedule was already too far off-kilter. Scranton's gold-medal game with St. Louis would not be played, and the teams would share honors in the U-19 division.

Soto and many of the players on Scranton have had a remarkably successful history in National Futures Tournament competition the last three or four seasons. It was Soto's third consecutive final, having coached a U-16 team to gold in 2002 and a U-19 team to silver in 2003.

"All of our older girls played their roles very well," Soto said. "It was a great experience for us that we were such a team-oriented group."

It was Pennsylvania's third straight U-19 gold and, thanks to a similar lightning-enabled draw in the U-16 match, it was the third straight year that Pennsylvania swept U-16 and U-19 gold medals.

St. Louis, ably coached by Asif Hosain, had players from four states (Colorado, Illinois, Texas, Missouri) on the team, but jelled quickly after pool play. The team upset San Jose in crossover play before beating Holyoke in penalty strokes to make it to the final.

Scranton got to the finals by beating tournament co-favorite Princeton on a late goal off the stick of Anne Marie Janus, one of several multiple medal-winners on the team. She took a shoulder-high goalie clear in the scoring circle, played through the referee's advantage, and flipped a nifty shot into the cage.

Unlike the U-19s, the U-16 final had a fighting chance. Eastern Shore -- last year's U-16 runner-up -- met Pennsylvania region representative West Chester, but could only play about 19 minutes before the day's first lightning delay. After the mandatory half-hour postponement, the teams played only about another 90 seconds until being sent back out again with more lightning in the area.

Eastern Shore, coached by Kelly Coyle, limped through pool play and only got into the upper half of the crossover by beating Denver head-to-head. Then the Delmarvans (plus one guest Californian) beat pool-winners Syracuse and Stroudsburg to get to the final.

West Chester, coached by Clarence Jennelle, became Pennsylvania's representative in the final only after beating Trenton and Kutztown in penalty-stroke shootouts.

It would have made a great final, except for the weather. But given the lack of weather problems at previous NFTs, you couldn't help feeling for the organizers.

Only the U-14 championship could yield an on-field result in the 2004 tournament, and that game went to the USA East team, coached on an interim basis by Amanda Janney, the TopOfTheCircle.com 2001 United States Coach of the Year. Her charges, made up of Pennsylvania and New York players, beat a game USA North squad 2-0.

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