Tuesday, September 14, 2010

15 For 16

Little Miss TigerBlog had her first soccer game in a long time this past Saturday. She's on the white team, and her team lost to the royal blue team.

Like basically every other kid in the country, LMTB's first organized sporting activity was in a co-ed soccer league for four year olds. Contrary to what anyone - TigerBlog included - may say about lacrosse, the fastest growing sport in terms of youth participation continues to be soccer.

Soccer, of course, is responsible for the current model that exists in the youth sports world, where it's all about making the travel team at whatever age so that eventually you can get a scholarship to a Division I school.

LMTB, and TigerBlog Jr., gave up on soccer after their four-year-old experience. Since then, she has played basketball and lacrosse, while he has played baseball (for one year), lacrosse, basketball and football. LMTB returned to soccer this year because her best friend, Wiki, also plays, though she is on a travel team.

Wiki also has competed in youth swimming and even synchronized swimming. Other kids that they know participate in among other sports baseball, softball, tennis, golf, wrestling, track and field and cross country.

One sport absent from that list is field hockey. For the first time, TigerBlog saw a youth field hockey program being advertised, though it is a half-hour away. Additionally, TBJ's middle school also has a field hockey team.

In many ways, field hockey is a mysterious sport to many, most of whom have either never seen it or don't understand the rules.

TigerBlog grew up near the Jersey Shore in a town that didn't have field hockey or lacrosse, and he first saw field hockey when started covering high school sports in his early newspaper days.

He learned most of what he knows about the rules and such from Lori Hussong, who was the West Windsor-Plainsboro High coach back then and now is the highly successful coach at Rider University, and from the Princeton coach when he started covering colleges, Beth Bozman.

Basically, you can't shield the ball from your opponent with your body and can't double-team the ball. You also have to hit the ball with the flat side of the stick.

Princeton went 156-83-4 against Ivy League schools a year ago in all sports combined. So far in 2010-11, Princeton is 1-0, with a win over Harvard in men's water polo last weekend.

As men's water polo is not a sport that will crown an Ivy champion, the field hockey team will play the first actual league game this Friday night, when Dartmouth comes to Class of 1952 Stadium in a matchup of teams that are undefeated on the young season and rank 1-2 in Division I in scoring offense.

The Princeton women have won 15 of the last 16 Ivy titles, including each of the last five.

How difficult is it to dominate a sport for that extended period of time? Very.

In Ivy League history, the only other time a school has won 15 titles in a 16-year span of the same sport has come in men's lacrosse, and TB will grudgingly give Cornell proper credit for its dominating run beginning in 1968. Princeton's best run in men's lacrosse, by the way, was 12 titles in 13 years.

Princeton field hockey dates back to 1971, when it was the second varsity women's sport at the school. The program has won more than 65% of its games all-time, and that number is higher when starting in 1988, the year Bozman became head coach.

Under Bozman, Princeton went 188-73-6, a .715 percentage, and reached four NCAA Final Fours and two NCAA finals.

It took Bozman eight years to reach her first Final Four; current head coach Kristen Holmes-Winn got there in seven. Holmes-Winn is 89-43 with the Tigers overall, and she is 36-6 since the start of the 2008 season.

This year, the Tigers are 3-0 and have outscored their three opponents by a combined 17-2. This weekend is big, with the game against Dartmouth Friday and then another home game Sunday against Syracuse, whom Princeton defeated to reach the Final Four a year ago.

The Tigers aren't exactly ducking anyone this season either.

Princeton is currently ranked fourth, and the regular-season schedule includes games against No. 2 Maryland, No. 3 Virginia and No. 6 UConn, as well as Syracuse (No. 8), Louisville (No. 12), Penn State (No. 15) and American (No. 18).

Clearly, you don't put together a schedule like that if you don't think you can handle it. Even with a team that is still amazingly young, the Tigers clearly feel ready for such a challenging fall.

Challenge No. 1: An Ivy League title would make Princeton field hockey the first league school ever to win 16 in 17 years.

Challenge No. 2: Navigating a tough non-league schedule with an eye on another Final Four.

These are interesting times in the mysterious sport.

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