International rule changes make mark early in season

By Mike Gillmeister

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The Massachusetts field hockey team faces a lot of changes in 2009. Not only do the Minutewomen have numerous freshmen on the team but the International Hockey Federation (FIH) – field hockey’s national governing body – has implemented the new “self-hit rule” in an effort to increase the overall speed of games.

In conjunction with the new rule, free hits inside the 23-meter mark cannot be played directly into the striking circle. This rule was changed to prevent dangerous play from a strong hit towards the cage at close range.

No. 11 UMass (4-1) has already experienced the effects of the rule change. In Game 1 of the UMass Invitational, Boston University (1-5) consistently sped the ball up-field and into the Minutewomen scoring zone and frequently earned penalty corners. The Terriers held a 13-9 advantage in penalty corners, including three in overtime.

This showed a surefire way of getting scoring advantages on an opponent. Current penalty corner leaders in their respective conferences in the three major Division I field hockey conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big 10 and Big East) are also atop conference standings. The same is also true for the Atlantic 10 and America East conferences.

As far as the Minutewomen go, UMass coach Justine Sowry thinks that the new free-hit rule benefits the team by creating more scoring opportunities and forcing players to play a stouter defense.

“I think we’ve gone individual,” Sowry said. “It has to be a total team effort defensively. On the flip side, the new rule is fantastic because more [scoring] opportunities are going to be opening up if you can create the spaces to form the [2-on-1] matchups and attack the circle.”

Leading by example are backs Makaela Potts and Jaime Bourazeris. Along with junior captain Katie Kelly, the two defenders are tied for the team-lead in goals with two. Potts in particular is vital to the new team-dynamic. A former midfielder, Potts made the switch to defense because Sowry valued Potts’ immense knowledge of the game and tenacious defense.

Polar opposites

The Minutewomen have given up 59 penalty corners this season but Sowry doesn’t attribute this to the new rule change. Instead, Sowry feels that the team needs to play smarter defense. The learning curve for some of the younger players on the team doesn’t seem to be affecting their playing time, either.

Against No. 13 James Madison (3-2) Sowry started four freshmen, including forward Kara Charochak, who is the only freshman on the team to record a goal. Fellow forward Kim Young leads all freshmen with six shots, one on goal.

Charochak’s goal came against a nationally-ranked Iowa (1-5) team that pushed UMass even higher up in the rankings. Her score was the first of the game and by all accounts jump-started the Minutewomen offense that looked to rebound after being upset by the Terriers.

While no freshmen start in the backfield, Potts’ transition to defense made space for the younger players to thrive.

While in the backfield, Potts can still be seen directing younger players who seem lost on defensive plays.

Productive backfield

Potts and Bourazeris have certainly seen plenty of scoring opportunities while in the backfield this season. Neither back is afraid to take the ball up-field if they find a break in the defense. Bourazeris’ two goals are one-shy of her goal total of last season while Potts – as she did last season – continues to lead UMass in shots. The luxury of having one defender take the ball up-field while still having another strong defender remaining in the backfield is a luxury that both Sowry and the younger forwards can enjoy.

“Most of their goals are still coming from penalty corners,” Sowry said of the defense. “That essentially hasn’t changed [since last season]. They’re our stroke power in the circle. However with our [younger] players developing, we’re certainly looking for our backfield to overlap and get involved in the front-field attack.”

Mike Gillmeister can be reached at [email protected]