THE FOREIGN INFLUX AND ITS INFLUENCE ON DIVISION I FIELD HOCKEY

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle

The sport of field hockey is an immigrant sport, having come from England in the early 1900s to greater Philadelphia and greater Boston.

Until the mid-1980s, the sport in this country has been dominated by home-grown American talent. As men's club hockey grew as well as the number of women's collegiate scholarships, the realization grew that having players from good hockey-playing countries -- India, Australia, Pakistan, Holland, Canada -- became paramount for team success.

These days, it is rare to find a major Division I field hockey roster without a player outside of the United States. The 1998 NCAA Tournament featured 12 teams, and most of them had at least one foreigner on the team.

Of the top four "host" seeds, all had at least one non-American. Old Dominion had Ashleigh Miller (Canada), Lisette Fortanier and Anne-Margot Roskott, (Netherlands), Teneille Williams (Trinidad), and star player Marina DiGiacomo (Argentina). Maryland had Caroline Walter (Germany), Angela Platt (Northern Ireland), and Rachel Hiskins (Australia). Princeton had Joelle Kueng and Karen Ng (Canada) and Melanie Meerschwam (Netherlands), while Marjolijn Beumers (Netherlands) was on Connecticut's roster.

The rest of the field of eight had plenty of off-shore help. Massachusetts had Zowie Tucker (Wales), Nicole Bardell (Canada), Vicky Browne (England), Anke Bruemmer (Germany) and Kerry Ann Jaggasar (Trinidad). Boston College had Amelie Wulff (Germany), while Kent State rocketed into the NCAA tournament behind four Dutch players: Marjolijn Klooster, Elsbeth Versterre, Leontien Plugge, and Wietkeke van de Kamp.

Three of the nation's most prominent teams, however, eschewed foreigners in the 1998 season. Big Ten champion Penn State, preseason No. 1 Virginia, and defending champion North Carolina had no foreigners on their rosters. In fact, one of the supreme ironies of the 1990s in field hockey is that the Tar Heels had won three straight titles with all-American lineups. That this is perceived as irony shows exactly what kind of influence non-Americans have on the game.

Foreign influences have extended into the high-school level. The talent that former German national team member Andschana Mendes brought to Glen Gardner Voorhees (N.J.) in 1997 years ago extended the abilities of an already talented bunch of players. Her play enabled her to get a college scholarship at Rutgers University, where she became the Big East Rookie of the Year in 1998.

As field hockey is generally an amateur sport on a worldwide scale, any money -- especially from American universities, paid by beverage and shoe companies -- is a major draw.

So, should there be limits on participation in NCAA field hockey by foreign players? It's been tried before in other sports. In the early 1990s, scolarships in women's ice hockey were frozen when it became clear that a mere three schools could dominate play by importing Canadian women. Since Northeastern, New Hampshire, and Providence were prevented from giving scholarships for a short while, it evened the recruiting field when the ban was lifted.

"On the college level, it's a political debate, and it depends on where you stand," said Leslie LaFronz, who saw the genesis of the debate while a field hockey player at Northwestern in the mid-80s. "If you believe that a college scholarship is to enable an athlete to participate at the college level, then you shouldn't be importing people. If there are legitimate people that want to play and want to come to the States for an education, then, of course they should be accepted. But to go and recruit overseas because you want to have a better program doesn't make you a good coach. It's all about politics, money, and prestige."

These days, recruitment of the foreign player is not done through travel, given the expenses. However, if your team is good enough to be known throughout the world, there is a kind of "passive" recruiting which comes through the reputation of a team or school.

"We don't give scholarships, so nobody is going to come here for one year," said Princeton head coach Beth Bozman, referring indirectly to the most brazen "player hire" in college history when Andrew Gaze of Australia helped Seton Hall University to the 1989 NCAA Division I men's basketball championship game, immediately dropping out of school afterwards.

"People come here because it's world-reknowned academically, and we have a good field hockey team," Bozman said. "We truly have the student athlete here."

The reason so many players are imported in Division I is simple. Field hockey recruiting is to the point where coaches feel that they either cannot bring a more sophisticated recruiting model to their methodology, or feel as though a foreigner can bring more to a team.

This, however, leads to "hiring" of players for less than a four-year career. Take, for example, Kent's quartet of foreign players in the 1998 season. The Flashes were the highest-scoring team in Division I, and had the highest-scoring player in Versterre. All four of these Dutchwomen, however, left school and are not on the 1999 roster.

To be sure, according to many foreign players, they possess abilities of the average American basketball player who would choose to be overseas.

Here in the U.S., basketball is taught and learned by watching and doing rather than a series of drills done by rote during long practices or training sessions. In the U.S., players on every back lot, every playground imitate Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson.

Similarly, in places like The Netherlands, field hockey players on public fields all over the country imitate Floris Jan Bovelander rather than doing a series of drills done by rote during long practices or training sessions.

"Back in Holland, we let the ball do the work," said Dutch native Esther DeBoer-Novis, who came to Princeton (N.J.) while in high school and was immediately one of the county's better players in the early 1980s. "I remember having to do an awful lot of running."

"How do you compare a player from Holland who starts at the age of three?" LaFronz said. "It's the school's decision if they want to bring in someone who can't do the coursework."

Thanks to a strong foreign influence, however, players and their American coaches have become more skilled and creative. In addition, you can see practices and camps where the "small games" method of warming up and working out are used, rather than setting up a line of cones as an obstacle course.

But it remains to be seen whether American players, even after a decade of Futures, can compete not only on the field, but for a pool of scholarship money under pressure from all sides.

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