I, THE BALLBOY
By Al Mattei
After 10 years of seeing nearly 500 field hockey games of every quality and standard across the eastern United States, we knew that this journalism career was going to get a new chapter: a Test match.
The scene was Union, N.J., at the third-round doubleheader of the United States U21 Four-Nations' Tournament, featuring Chile, India, England, and the home side.
But minutes after entering the confines of Kean University's multipurpose facility, replete with shimmering new artificial turf, a most interesting offer came our way:
"We had signed some kids up, but they're not here yet. Would you like to be a ballboy?"
Conceptually, it was not the best idea. This 33-year-old male had a VO2 level atrophied because of a Washington office job. The temperature was in the low 90s, and the heat index was near 100. And, seeing that the new turf was being watered down every 30 minutes or so, the humidity was not going to be too pleasant.
But, I reasoned, how many people get to see a field hockey Test match from up close? There was only one response: "Yes!"
The four volunteers were outfitted with green shirts (distinctively colored from the umpires and players) and before we knew it, we were processing out into the middle of the new turf with the U21 national teams of Chile and India.
The job of ballboy or ballgirl in Test field hockey is different from any other sport. In any other game -- soccer, lacrosse, football -- the volunteer ballkids simply toss a ball in the general direction of where the ball went out of bounds and run after the errant pass.
But field hockey requires something more. When the ball leaves play in field hockey, the ballboy or ballgirl becomes part of the restart, placing the ball on the sideline on the exact spot where it crossed the touch line. Only after the ball is placed on the line does the attention turn to the wayward five-ounce sphere.
Of course, the act needs to be done quickly: only the best coaches call out, when a free hit is whistled in their favor, the reminder, "Right away!" to reinforce the need to take free hits quickly. Because of the heat and humidity, my lack of footspeed, and the faint blue sidelines, this was not going to be as easy as it looked.
I immediately made a plan to conserve energy. I knew that, instead of running full-speed after every play, I would have to anticipate where a ball might go out of bounds, much like an outfielder in baseball.
On the opening hitback, I set up at around the 16-yard mark in case the opening play was to hit-and-run and then cause a turnover in the opponent's defensive end. On corners in the other half of the field, I stood around the 40 in case of a bad insert or deflection. On free hits into the circle, I was posted between the 5 and the 16 in case of the two likely scenarios: a long corner or a defensive free hit.
Minutes into the first half, my first chance came. A ball was deflected over the endline by the Indian defense and, on the way to chasing the ball behind the goal, I plunked down a fresh ball on the five-yard hashmark on the endline for the ensuing long corner.
Only after I fetched the errant ball did I realize my mistake: the ball should have been placed on the sideline hashmark which was drawn five yards from the corner flag!
The second time the ball went out of bounds, I set the ball down on the touch line. I was about to scamper away when, to my horror, I saw the old ball heading right back towards me. One of the players had retrieved the ball and had batted it back in the general area of the next side-in.
I pounced on the ball and scampered over the sideline as quickly as possible in order to keep the play going. During this episode, my left knee made contact with the fresh, new artificial turf of Kean University's multipurpose facility.
At halftime, I had to get turf-burn treatment from the on-site trainer. As he went through the therapy (mineral water, ointment, gauze pad, outer wrapping), I knew I was going through what many of the players on the field had done on countless occasions because of the use of artificial turf, laterized pitches, and clay courts in international hockey.
A mantra from the Nike soccer commercial (featuring the U.S. women's soccer team taking a visit to the dentist) kept playing in my head: "I will have two fillings. I will have two fillings." If I was going to understand what Test hockey was like, a turf burn was only going to be part of the experience, not an unfortunate mishap.
For a good portion of the Chile-India contest, it was hard to anticipate exactly where the ball was likely to go astray because both teams played a possession game. Neither defense dumped the ball out of bounds to relieve pressure, nor did the attacks play the hit-and-hope style of offense.
And the skill level was something to behold, especially Indian captain Pushpa Pradhan. Despite double-teaming by Chile, this fullback would be able to work her way out of the pressure and send perfect outlet passes to the midfield.
When the final horn sounded, with India a 10-0 winner, I had my doubts as to whether my day's work was through. Not many young fans had attended the Saturday doubleheader, so I remained available for another 70 minutes of play.
Before long, I was marching out again, leading the procession of umpires and players for the day's second contest, featuring England's and Team USA's junior players.
It was a little easier to anticipate the play in this game, since neither England nor Team USA played the precise possession game India had shown. In addition, I could hear what the teams were trying to do as the players communicated with each other. In the previous game, the outburts of Spanish and Hindi tongues were of little help in figuring out where the play was going to develop -- and where the hockey ball was likely to go over the sideline.
It was also easier to anticipate what was going to happen because of the situation in the tournament. Because of India's goal differential and number of wins, the Americans not only had to beat England, they had to win by six goals in order to advance to the next day's championship final.
Team USA, attacking towards my side of the field in the first 35 minutes of play, expended plenty of energy in the offensive zone in hopes of getting a goal, if not several. It was hard keeping up with this team which was made up of some teenagers and a few college players.
At every injury timeout, I scampered to my water bottle on the sideline and forced down every ounce I could. It was the hottest part of the day, and it being a mere five days removed from the summer solstice, the sun's rays were at their most intense.
Since the United States attacked the left side of England's defense in the first half, I wound up chasing down several more hockey balls than my counterparts. I found myself having to roll the extras down the sidelines to my counterparts, much like the ballboys at Wimbledon.
It was not until the middle of the second half when I felt completely relaxed and into the game's rhythm. By then, however, the home side was tiring, and pretty much knew that it was not going to be able to pull out that secret "six-point goal" play in time to gain a spot in the championship game.
As for the result, the 1-0 loss to England on the Americans' part was not completely unexpected in the end. It was just that Team USA had put forth an excellent effort which was nullified by a single through pass.
The well-struck, accurate ball cut through the heart of the US defense and found English attacker Helen Grant a good five yards behind the last defender as the game clock ticked down to the last 10 minutes of play. And, even though goalkeeper Becky Worthington of the University of Virginia had made several excellent stops in the second half, Grant was able to make good on this scoring chance.
After a final US surge in the last minutes of play, the horn sounded. And I had a chance to rest, finally. After two games of running the sidelines, I was thirsty, had a turf burn on my left knee, and I felt a sunburn coming on -- just like all of the participants in the Four-Nations' Tournament.
"I will have two fillings. I will have two fillings..."