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August 08, 2016

Delaware Valley-fueled field hockey squad eyes Olympic medal

To take in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics is an opportunity to see just what is meant when the words melting pot are used to describe the United States of America.

To watch the athletes representing the country in swimming, basketball, gymnastics, rugby, soccer, tennis, and table tennis is to get a complete picture of the diversity that makes America unique. Athletes from various backgrounds, from 46 of the 50 states (plus Washington, D.C.) are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this month.

But one of those American teams in Rio probably sounds distinctly different than any other team. You’d probably hear a lot of Philadelphia accents. Heck, they might as well have a Liberty Bell patch to complement the American flag one worn over the heart of their jerseys.

The United States women’s field hockey team, which has already toppled two favorites in the first three days of competition in Rio, is Philadelphia’s team.

“When I try to explain to anyone why this area is so strong,” Morett said, “it’s really because when Constance Applebee brought the sport over from England, she brought it to Bryn Mawr College."

Half of the roster (eight of the 16 women) is from the Philadelphia area. Three others are from Pennsylvania towns within 75 miles of Center City. Ten of the 16 players are from Pennsylvania, period, while a whopping 13 of the 16 are from Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware.

If a phone rings in their postgame locker room, there’s fair chance it’s connected to a number that begins with 215, 610, 856, or 302.

“We take a lot of pride (in it),” said Penn State field hockey coach Charlene Morett, and Delaware County native who won a bronze medal as a member of the U.S. field hockey team in the 1984 Olympics.

The 1984 team, the last U.S. women’s field hockey team to medal, also had 10 Pennsylvanians on its roster, including six from the Philadelphia area.

“There’s that toughness, a little bit of attitude, you know what I mean?” Morett said. “And in a good way. That’s a good thing.”

Team USA Field Hockey Broadcast Schedule

Wednesday, Aug. 10    USA vs. Japan   NBC Sports Network   4 p.m. EST  
 Thursday, Aug. 11USA vs. India   NBC Sports Network  6:30 p.m. EST  
Saturday, Aug. 13 USA vs. Great Britain  CNBC 5 p.m. EST 
Monday, Aug. 15 Women's Quarterfinals  USA 9 a.m. EST 
   NBC Sports Network 11:30 a.m. EST  
Wednesday, Aug. 17  Women's Semifinals  MSNBC  11 a.m. EST
  CNBC 5 p.m. EST 
Friday, Aug. 19 Women's Bronze Medal Match  USA Network 11:30 a.m. EST  
 Women's Gold Medal Match  MSNBC 4 p.m. EST 

When Penn State’s field hockey team opens its 2016 schedule two weeks from Friday, 14 of Morett’s 26-women roster will hail from the school’s home state. And eight of the Nittany Lions 26 players, almost a third, are from the Philadelphia area.

But that doesn’t seem odd.

Seeing half of a 16-player Olympic team come from the same region, however? That seems strange.

Unless you familiarize yourself with field hockey history in the United States.

“It’s always kind of started as a schoolgirl’s game out of Philadelphia,” said University of Maryland coach Missy Meharg, a nine-time national coach of the year who has a pair of former Terrapins on the current Olympic roster in Jill Witmer (Lancaster) and Katie Bam (Blue Bell).

Bam is probably the most recognizable name on the team, even if you may not recognize her name since the last Olympics. She competed in the Summer Games four years ago as Katie O’Donnell (she has since married) and is the most decorated U.S. player: the Wissahickon High product received the prestigious Sportswoman of the Year by the Women Sports Foundation in 2010, an award previously bestowed on the likes of Mia Hamm, Serena Williams, and Venus Williams.

But back to why it’s Philadelphia that’s producing athletes like Bam and the trio of Rachel Dawson, Katelyn Falgowski, and Lauren Crandall, who are all competing in their third straight Olympics.

“When I try to explain to anyone why this area is so strong,” Morett said, “it’s really because when Constance Applebee brought the sport over from England, she brought it to Bryn Mawr College. And then Ursinus and West Chester, under the great coach Vonnie Gros, my Olympic coach, and also Lock Haven. So you had a lot of predominantly women’s physical education colleges that really helped grow the sport, and they are all obviously in Pennsylvania. And especially with West Chester and Ursinus being so close to Philadelphia.”

And then the sport’s popularity in those colleges bled into its inclusion into the curriculum of Philadelphia-area high schools, too.

Applebee arrived in the United States in 1901, first while taking a class at Harvard and then moving to Bryn Mawr College three years later, where she served as athletic director and worked as a full or part-time field hockey coach until 1971 (when she was 97-years-old). So it’s fair to say the Philadelphia area had a nice head start, akin to James Naismith moving to Camden after inventing basketball and quickly making it the epicenter of the young sport.

But that was more than a century ago.

Field hockey’s staying power in the Philadelphia area has a lot to do with the infectious nature of the sport, with former players becoming coaches to share their passion for the game, and their players becoming coaches, and so on. But there are other factors at play, too.

“I think what’s impacted it more is the NCAA has pockets of field hockey,” Meharg said. “So when players are looking to be developed, etc., unfortunately, most of the schools are on the East Coast.”

Of the 78 colleges across the country that have Division-I field hockey programs, there are only 11 schools with D-I programs west of Indiana; there are more in Pennsylvania (12) alone. Sixty of those 78 schools are on the East Coast and there isn’t a single D-I field hockey program in Florida, Texas, or Southern California, among other places.

“I always felt like it would be lovely to get Texas A&M or Miami, Clemson,” said Meharg, a Kennett Square native who has led Maryland to seven national championships, including five between 2005-2011. “If we could just start to, like Bermuda grass, throw out some hot spots somewhere, this place is going to grow.”

And then there’s this, too:

“Without a men’s game in the scholastic it’s very challenging for this game to grow,” Meharg added. “In that regard, I think that’s why you’re seeing the same kind of clubs and regions maintaining high level.”

The Philadelphia Eight: Team USA's Delaware Valley Olympians

 Hometown Olympics 
Katie Bam Blue Bell, Pa.  2012, 2016
Lauren Crandall  Doylestown, Pa.2008, 2012, 2016 
Rachel Dawson  Berlin, N.J.2008, 2012, 2016 
Katelyn Falgowski  Landenberg, Pa. 2008, 2012, 2016 
 Julia Reinprecht Perkasie, Pa. 2012, 2016 
Katie Reinprecht Perkasie, Pa. 2012, 2016 
Caitlin Van Sickle   Wilmington, Del.2016 
 Michelle Vittese Cherry Hill, N.J. 2012, 2016 

The current team has a trio of players from New York, Virginia, and North Carolina. They have just as many players from Bucks County (Crandall, and sisters Katie and Julia Reinprecht). Also represented on the current Olympic roster are Chester County (Falgowski), Montgomery County (Bam), Camden County, New Jersey (Dawson and Michelle Vittese), and Wilmington, Delaware (Caitlin Van Sickle).

In addition to playing collegiately, the current Philadelphia hockey Olympians benefited from coming from successful high school and club programs – and most often, both. Rachel Dawson, who has seven siblings, including five sisters who also played D-I field hockey, played for Nancy McHale’s Spirit of USA club team and was a part of the prep dynasty that is Eastern Regional High School.

Under coach Danyle Heilig, Eastern (Voorhees, N.J) has won 17 straight New Jersey Group IV state championships and its most recent senior class finished their respective careers 106-0-1. Eastern, as they have in many years under Heilig, were ranked the No.1 high school team in the country in 2015.

Also notable: the next three teams in those rankings are from Pennsylvania, a state that accounted for nine of the top 25 prep teams last season.

“When you see the investment from the regions and the towns, I’d say Nancy McHale and Mark Vittese (Michelle’s dad, who coaches at Spirit and at Camden Catholic High School) and Danyle Heilig, these guys are front runners and they’ve been frontrunners,” Meharg said.

“Having grown up in Bucks County (and coached in South Jersey) there are similarities in the longevity of some top level coaches in our area, as well as the opportunities for high-level club play,” said Jean Marie Seal Pugliese, the current athletic director at West Windsor-Plainsboro (N.J.) and former coach for 17 years at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mt. Holly. “And the access to top-level college programs, too. I think that’s why this area is represented so well.”

The sport’s deep-rooted history in Pennsylvania and its surrounding states, and especially in the suburban Philadelphia area, has given many of the current Olympians the perfect training ground from the day they were encouraged to pick up a hockey stick. The region’s passion for the game, with highly competitive high school teams (like those coached by Heilig, an NCAA champion at James Madison University) and serious club teams (like the the WC Eagles, run by former Chinese Olympian Jun Cantwell, who have this luxurious facility at their disposal) has provided the athletes dedicated to the sport an avenue to grow their game in the best environments.

Speaking of which: if you’ve never seen hockey at it’s highest level, let’s just say the ideal playing surface isn’t the cow patch of a field you or your daughter played on 15-20 years ago. Many high school teams play on field turf surfaces now, but even those fields aren’t as fast as the regular turf at the collegiate and Olympic levels.

Couple that history and the passion its bred with the opportunities that are available, and then factor in the pure talent of a player like Vittese, who was basically doing the field hockey version of this as a freshman phenom at Camden Catholic High, and you’ve got the perfect storm that has created The Philadelphia Story in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

After finishing 12th out of 12 teams in the 2012 Summer Games, the U.S. field hockey team secured a return trip to the Olympics in the Pan American Games last year, when they beat Argentina (the silver medal winners in 2012 Olympics, bronze in ’08) in the championship, and they took momentum into Rio by beating Australia (fifth place finishers in both 2012 and 2008 Olympics) in the recent Champions Trophy tournament. And, wouldn’t you know it, Argentina and Australia were the first two teams on the U.S. team’s schedule in pool play.

The Americans scored 2-1 victories over both Argentina and Australia, respectively, on Saturday and Monday to begin their Olympic run 2-0. The tournament's quarterfinals are scheduled for Monday, August 15.

"We check off all of our boxes to ensure we're well prepared before each match," said Vittese, a Cherry Hill, N.J., native who put her team up 1-0 against Australia by buying a forehand shot off a penalty corner. "We have this grit, this resilience because we have previously failed, because we've been in unfavorable positions. Regardless of our past or current ranking, regardless of our previous results we play hard and I think the results of that show.”

Seal called Vittese “the best player on the field” after watching Monday’s game.

“I have all of the games on my phone and in my calendar so I don't miss a minute of the action, and it is just a thrill to see Rachel and Michelle playing so well after seeing them dominate high school play in our area,” said Seal, who coached against both Dawson and Vittese during their high school careers. “They are incredible ambassadors for the sport and show the young girls in our area that they can follow in their footsteps if they put in the work”

After the first two games, it’s not difficult to see this team on a medal stand within the next two weeks. The jumped out to 2-0 leads against two of the best teams in the tournament and managed to hold on when each game got tense in the final quarters.

“We had 10 players remaining from the 1980 (Olympics in Moscow) boycott team; that’s a lot of experience,” Morett said of the ’84 bronze medal winners. “This team has similar numbers (nine) coming back from the last Olympics. They have experience and talent. That’s a great combination for success.”

And if that success leads to a medal, they’ll be plenty of time for parades in Blue Bell, Doylestown, and Berlin, N.J., and everywhere else represented in the region, too. Maybe they’ll get to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at Citizens Bank Park or get those Mike Trout sideline passes to an Eagles game.

But, forget about those pro sports teams for a moment. Philadelphia’s Olympic team is apparently planning on putting the entire city on notice for the next two weeks.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21