Saturday, January 24, 2009

Happy Year of the Ox...

Gaining attention in Chula Vista

Tiffany Snow a member of the U.S. women's field hockey team and a San Pasqual High graduate watches as her teammates play No. 1-ranked Netherlands Wednesday at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. (Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle - Staff photographer)

CHULA VISTA ---- In a national sports landscape dominated by football, baseball and basketball, the U.S. women's field hockey team is gaining attention the only way it knows how: by putting up a fight.

"We persist," defender Rachel Dawson said. "It's not always easy, and we don't necessarily get the acclaim. But we put in the sacrifice because we're building this team to be something more."

The United States has long struggled in field hockey, having failed to qualify for three of four
Olympics until it reached the
2008 games in Beijing.

But by placing eighth in Beijing, the U.S. made such an impression that the top-ranked team in the world has come to Chula Vista this week to train with and scrimmage the Americans.

The five-game series against the 2008 Olympic champion Netherlands, which continues through Monday at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, represents a significant change in the international field hockey community's perception of the Americans.

"Just having the Olympic gold medalists wanting to come and play scrimmages against us is a pretty good indication that we're gaining respect in the world and they're interested in seeing what we're doing," U.S. coach Lee Bodimeade said.

Last July, the U.S. team won its first Olympic qualifier since 1988 with a win over Belgium in Kazan, Russia. The Americans haven't won an Olympic medal since taking bronze at the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

"To compete against this caliber of team, its pretty rewarding to see their skills and try to emulate that," said San Pasqual High graduate Tiffany Snow, one of two North County high school products on the U.S. roster for this week's session. "We're striving to be at that level so for them to come out and play against us is a great opportunity and kind of a sign of respect."

Torrey Pines grad Jessica Javelet, a member of the national team's developmental squad, is also competing for the U.S. this week.

The Americans have made the majority of their progress since Bodimeade became their head coach in 2005. A member of Australia's men's national team from 1991 to 1998, Bodimeade quickly earned the players' respect and was named USA Field Hockey's national coach of the year in 2006.

"I respect and admire him so much," said Dawson, the 2007 college player of the year at North Carolina. "We all know that he was a great player for Australia, but I think his ability to connect with us and invest in us has paid off."

The Americans have lost each of the first three scrimmages to the Netherlands by a combined score of 18-0. The fourth scrimmage is scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m., with the finale set for Monday at 3 p.m. All scrimmages are free and open to the public.

Despite the lopsided scores, the U.S. has clearly progressed the past four years.

"When I took over, the team had been unsuccessful in qualifying for the 2004 Olympic Games," Bodimeade said. "Through that came a lot of fallout with players who thought their dreams of playing in the Olympics were over and changes in the coaching structure took place. It was really a feeling of where do we go from here."

Bodimeade said one of his key aims as head coach was to establish a personality for the team.

"What we've defined, first and foremost, is what style of hockey the USA plays," he said. "Our philosophy is to attack, that's the driving attitude of this team. Once we established that mentality, we were able to come up with a four-year plan that got us to Beijing."

The week of scrimmages against the Netherlands is just another step toward his attempt to bring the USA back to the top of the field hockey world. In February, the team will head to the Bahamas to compete in the Pan Am Cup.

"What better way to prepare for the Pan Am than playing against the No. 1 team?" he said. "I think right now we're the envy of the field hockey community, getting to play against such high quality competition."

Dawson said she hopes the momentum that's starting to build behind the U.S. team translates into new field hockey fans.

"This is the time to buy in," Dawson said. "We're definitely going places and this is a great spectator sport. We hope to inspire young kids to play and get them involved because we really are only going up from here."