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Sticking With Field Hockey

Lacking money and exposure, men's sport continues to struggle, as U.S. team fails to qualify for the Olympics. Coaches and players are looking for a breakthrough.

June 21, 2004|Kelsie Smith | Times Staff Writer

For the U.S. men's field hockey team, Moorpark College is as close to Athens as it is going to get.

After failing to qualify for the 2004 Games, the U.S. team got a chance Sunday to experience what Athens could have been like.

Taking a break from its pre-Olympic training in Arizona, India's national team traveled to Southern California to play the U.S. in a two-game series Saturday and Sunday. The eight-time Olympic gold medal-winning program defeated the U.S., 7-0, Saturday and 6-0 on Sunday.

The outcome wasn't surprising for either team. Men's field hockey doesn't exactly have a winning tradition in America. The last two Olympics the team participated in were 1996 and 1984 -- Atlanta and Los Angeles -- and that was because the host country's team automatically qualifies. The only time the U.S. won a medal was 1932. Three teams participated that year; the U.S. won the bronze.

Field hockey is popular mostly in California and on the East Coast. Much like soccer, the sport is tremendously popular in Europe, but it hasn't managed to develop a following here. A female physical education teacher introduced the sport to America in 1901, which explains why today women make up a majority of American players, teams and programs.

Players will tell you there are a couple of significant reasons why field hockey doesn't bring in medals. Pat Harris, 19, has been on the national team since 2000. He doubts field hockey will ever become a popular sport in America because there are too many other big franchise sports for it to catch on.

Teammate Shawn Hindy agreed and said, because the sport lacks popularity and exposure, the U.S. doesn't have enough players. He has been on the national team since 1995 and said that, at times, the weak tradition is frustrating.

"We try as hard as we can, and we work as hard as we can," he said. "It's a nice hockey family that we have here, we just need to make it a little bigger."

Another problem is money. Because field hockey isn't high profile or successful, finding a sponsor is difficult. Without money the team can't travel to play high-caliber teams such as India or Pakistan. Without playing high-caliber teams, it can't improve.

Harris said he had friends who left field hockey when they realized there were no options after high school.

"You can't go to college with it, and there's no pro league here," he said.

Harris took a year off from college to play in Germany. He wasn't paid, but he got free room and board. He also found a job coaching.

Coach Shiv Jagday has been with the team since 1998. He knows the challenges it faces but remains optimistic about the future of field hockey in the U.S. He said he has several talented players, but many struggle with confidence. He hopes someday field hockey will grow in America as soccer has.

"Frustration is a building block if you look at it in a positive way. It says that we can do better than we are doing, although sometimes we are too hard on ourselves," he said. "We have to manage our expectations and be realistic. We have to set mini goals to achieve our maxi goals."

Those small goals, he said, involve trying to start youth field hockey programs. One of the biggest problems he said he faces is trying to teach basic skills to players who are already 19 or 20 years old.

Right now, the team's big goal is finding a way to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. The U.S. players have bypassed 2008 because the site has been set -- Beijing. But New York has a shot at being host of the 2012 Games, which would once again give them the home-team advantage.

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