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Summer Games

Nowhere to Go but Up

U.S. Men's Field Hockey Team, Dominated by Ventura County Players, Seeks First Olympic Victory


ATLANTA — Things are looking up for the U.S. men's field hockey team.

The first sign of that came Monday in a game against Argentina, when the Americans scored twice, equaling a 64-year-old Olympic team record for most goals in a game.

More good news was delivered Wednesday. For the first time in these Games, the U.S. made it past the midway point of the first half without falling behind by as many as three goals.

Sometimes progress is measured in small steps.

Who knows, any day now they might even win an Olympic game.

As it stands, the U.S. men's team, one dominated by players from Ventura County, hasn't won any of its 25 Olympic games dating back to 1932.

The dreary specifics: a record of 0-22-3, including 0-3 this year.

But don't worry, these guys apparently don't embarrass easily.

Rather than blush, they get downright testy.

"We can't carry the burden of every Olympic team that's ever played," starting sweeper Ben Maruquin said after a 4-0 loss to India on Wednesday morning. "None of us were on any of those other Olympic teams, so for us it's not an issue."

When (if?) the U.S. finally does win a game, it is likely that Maruquin or another player who learned the game in Ventura County youth leagues will contribute significantly.

Five of the team's 11 starters, one of its five reserves and all four of its alternates are products of the Thousand Oaks-based Field Hockey Federation. The starters are midfielders Larry Amar, John O'Neill and Nick Butcher and defenders Scott Williams and Maruquin.

Moorpark College has a relatively new synthetically surfaced complex that is home to the nation's best youth boys' program.

Field hockey teams for girls are somewhat common, but there isn't a competitive intercollegiate or high school boys' team in the country.

The best club team players are put in development programs, and the cream of those crops are sent either to Colorado Springs or Chula Vista to train.

Amar is captain of the U.S. team and generally recognized as its best player. He was plucked from youth field hockey at 15.

Although he was initially more interested in soccer and basketball, Amar stuck with field hockey because: "I found a place where people wanted to see me succeed and do well for myself. I've been trained all along to become a big part of this team."

Field hockey's big push into Ventura County came in 1984, when U.S. team members using Moorpark as their training facility made trips to local schools for demonstrations.

Their pitch was fairly straightforward. Given the sport's relative anonymity, could anyone think of an activity that offered better odds of earning opportunities for international travel and perhaps playing in the Olympics?

Even now, field hockey officials estimate that nationwide there are only about 150 men who are considered elite players.

Worldwide, there are 170 field hockey federations. The U.S. isn't ranked internationally--the ratings go only to 12--but Marc Whitney, a spokesman for USA Field Hockey, estimates the Americans would fall somewhere between 13 and 16.

The U.S. automatically qualified for the 12-team Olympic field as the host nation.

Cedric D'Souza, India's coach, chose diplomacy and sidestepped the issue when asked if he thought the Americans might be taking the spot of a better team.

But he did say that he was happy to see the U.S. was India's next opponent after his highly regarded team lost to Argentina and tied Germany in its first two Olympic games.

"We had to get into a winning act today," he said. "We couldn't have asked for a better draw for that than the USA."

Of course, D'Souza has the advantage of coaching a team from a nation with a steep field hockey tradition.

The only thing steep about USA field hockey is the climb.

U.S. Coach Jon Clark, a former goalkeeper for a renowned British team, said this country must broaden its grass-roots efforts and find better athletes to develop.

"Give us the athletes and we'll teach them how to play hockey," he said. "We need a few more greyhounds."

Clark was hopeful that a strong showing before large crowds at these Games would propel field hockey to another level.

Well, the fans have shown up. About 5,000 were at Morris Brown College for the U.S.-India game, prompting Clark to crack, "That's a lot better than the three men and a dog that we usually get in San Diego."

If only what they witnessed had been a bit more inspiring.

The United States' best chance at scoring came with a little more than two minutes to play, but Amar's uncontested inbounds pass from the side of the goal wobbled off his stick and was picked off by an Indian defender, who started a five-on-one fastbreak the other way.

"We take a short corner and the other team scores on it," Clark muttered. "I can't imagine little Billy Smith seeing that and saying, 'I want to do that!' "

Perhaps not. But hope springs eternal.

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