Clueless At The Cal Cup
Every Memorial Day weekend for the last 39 years, the California Cup International Field Hockey Tournament has taken place in the eastern hills of SoCal’s Ventura County. From humble beginnings in 1972, in which the tournament consisted of five local teams and a special invitee from Germany, the event has grown to its present incarnation, which this year will feature 134 teams from all over the world. More than 2,500 players will compete in 13 divisions covering men and women as young as 8 years old. The names of the divisions themselves describe the wide range of skill and intensity of play – everything from the Mixed Social division to the Super Division, which awards a $5,000 prize to both men’s and women’s winning teams. More than just a tournament, this is a festival of field hockey – a non-stop four day jamboree of competition.
I rolled into Moorpark College, the main venue of this three-site extravaganza, expecting to be greeted by a wave of humanity. Not so much. It turns out that the only division that takes part in the first day of the tournament is the Super Division, the Cal Cup’s highest talent strata. Any disappointment about missing the full-scale sensory onslaught quickly dissipated when I realized that I would pretty much have the place to myself as an independent spectator. As best as I could tell, when I arrived I became The Crowd. And I fully utilized this status by sitting pretty much anywhere I wanted to, sampling different vantage points as the day went on. I was to become the foremost authority on field hockey in all of Sports Fan-dom!! Or not, as the case turned out to be.
See, once you get past the basics – propel a ball into a goal more times than your opponent does and you win – field hockey is a somewhat mystifying game to watch. Lots of inexplicable changes of possession. Lots of counter-intuitive strategy. Very little explanation of same. Which is why I was happy to note the arrival of The Dirty Birds.
At the beginning of my second game of the day, The Dirty Birds, just in from Vancouver, took up residence on the bleachers in front of me to watch the contest between their distaff counterparts, The Dirty Birdies and Jolie Pitts (an actual team and not just an individual). I would’ve guessed their ages to be in the 18 to 22 range, which was in stark contrast to the other men’s Super Division teams that I’d seen play. In fact, in the game that the Camarillo Cougars played against Ontario United, the youngest players appeared to be of college age. I couldn’t imagine how The Dirty Birds could possibly hold their own against either of these teams.
Which is not to say that The Dirty Birds couldn’t talk their way through the game. This squad was an anthropologist’s delight. Arriving en masse and full of bluster, they unconsciously sat in perfect formation – a kind of inverted bowling pin set-up, with the largest number of team members on the bottom row of the bleachers and diminishing groups in the two rows above them. They all sported more or less the same look – the same popular tuft-like haircut, either board shorts or plaid Bermudas, and sleeveless tee’s. Those that wore hats wore them backwards. Except of course, the Alpha Player. He occupied the “five pin” location in the center of the formation and set the tone for everyone else, keeping up a running string of dialogue which was always sarcastic and occasionally pretty funny. And everyone in the group deferred to him. Those that occupied second-tier status attempted to keep up with the Alpha Player, but seeking validation directed their commentary either to him or in his direction. And only the Alpha Player had a unique look – longish hair under a modified cowboy hat, accented by a large pair of garish white sunglasses. Think Ferris Bueller, but not possessed of the same charm.
Overlooking all of that, I kept my seat within close range of The Dirty Birds, hoping that I could pick up a little more about the intricacies of the game from their running commentary. No luck – other than to learn that any player that wore gloves on the field to protect their hands was derisively and loudly referred to as “Mittens” for the duration of the game.
So I was left to my own devices as to the rules. How tough could it be? I had managed to tease out all I needed to know about water polo in a little less than a full game, and I knew the vast majority of the rules of hockey. What could make a game so different by simply adding the word “field” to the front of it? Well…a lot. Most of which I still haven’t figured out.
I reached the day’s pinnacle of cluelessness at the end of my last game. It had been tightly contested throughout and was looking like it would conclude in a scoreless tie. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity around the far goal, a telling thunk of ball meeting the wood at the back of the goal, and a victorious raising of sticks …Score!!! OK, maybe not. For the next thing I knew, one player was lining up for a penalty shot from the top of the shooting circle. One on one – shooter on goalie – which given the size of the goal seemed a bit of a mismatch. Sure enough, the penalty shot went in and only then was the 1-0 score posted. Why was the first goal not a goal? Why does something left in the freezer too long get “burned”?
Now down a goal in the waning minutes of the game, the losing team launched a full scale assault on…the end line? For some reason, they attempted to maneuver the ball near their opponent’s goal, without actually shooting on it. And they were rewarded for their excellence in not quite shooting with a regular penalty shot with just seven seconds showing on the clock. Only this time, in contrast to all other penalty shots that I’d witnessed, the entire offensive team got to line up at the top of the shooting circle. The defensive formation however, involved the normal sub-set of the team. I was sure that this unprecedented advantage in manpower would certainly result in a rebound goal if the penalty shot did not go in. And sure enough, when the initial shot was repelled the entire offense swarmed…to shake hands. Game over. Huh? What happened to a thrilling flurry in the crease for the last seven seconds? Barry Melrose would cut off his mullet in protest!
So here is my mea culpa. The arrogant side of this Sports Fan assumed that I’d be able to figure out enough about the rules of any sport that I watched well enough to comment on the flow of play and the strategies utilized. After four non-stop hours of watching field hockey being played at close range though, I left with no more of an understanding of the nuances of the game than I arrived with. So here is your official “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Rain Check. I will read up on the rules of field hockey and attend another game at some point in this crazy 100-event quest. You deserve as much. And who knows? When the 40th rendition of the Cal Cup faces off next year, maybe The Bird and I will be competing as Mixed Socials. And just for fun, I’m going to encourage her to wear gloves.