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Fresh Off Pan Am Gold, Field Hockey Players Hit The Grassroots

By Tom Robinson | July 27, 2015, 2:16 p.m. (ET)

Kelsey Kolojejchick pushes the ball through during the Four Nations match between New Zealand and the United States at Lloyd Elsmore Hockey Stadium on April 19, 2012 in Auckland, New Zealand.

KINGSTON, Pa. – Kelsey Kolojejchick was a force in making sure the present continues to go quite well for the U.S. women’s field hockey team. On Sunday she joined with some U.S. national team teammates in looking out for the future of the game, too.

After earning a spot for the U.S. at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games July 23 and successfully defending their Pan American Games title two nights later in Toronto, Kolojejchick and four fellow national team members were right back on the field on Sunday morning demonstrating advanced skills to 86 enthusiastic young players.

The Pan Am Games gold medals they had just secured — and the Olympic Games on the horizon — increased the photo and autograph requests at the end of sessions, but the attention also might have helped the national team players get their message across.

“They’re thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, they just won a Pan Am gold,’” said Kolojejchick, who returned to her high school field, Wyoming Seminary’s Klassner Field, just miles from her Larksville, Pennsylvania, home, for the Red, White, Blue and You Clinic. “It’s something they should respond to and work hard because maybe they’re thinking we know a lot more.

“For us to be at a high level, I think it makes them respond better to learning.”

Kolojejchick was joined in coaching by Paige Selenski, Jill Witmer, Alesha Widdall and Kat Sharkey, a teammate at Wyoming Seminary and with Team USA, who helped out as much as she could while on crutches after recently suffering a fractured ankle.

The clinic in Pennsylvania, and another in the series the next day in New Jersey, followed an outstanding performance in Toronto. The United States dominated its first four opponents by a total of 34-0, then defeated Argentina, the world’s third-ranked team, 2-1 to defend the Pan Am Games title from 2011.

“I think that makes it more exciting for them,” said Kolojejchick, who led the way for Team USA with seven Pan Am Games goals.

Moving up to split time between forward and her usual offensive midfield spot while Sharkey is out of the lineup, Kolojejchick responded. Her six field goals — those scored on plays other than penalty corners and penalty strokes — led all Pan Am Games players and her seven total goals ranked second overall.

The Red, White, Blue and You Clinics were designed for more advanced players trying to add higher-level skills, according to USA Field Hockey Regional Development Manager Keli Smith Puzo, a two-time Olympian who helped organize and oversee the clinic.

The Pennsylvania stop drew 21 middle school participants — and two 5-year-old observers — in the morning and 65 high school players in the afternoon.

The national team players found themselves demonstrating aerials and reverse hits to players at a younger age than when they developed those abilities themselves.

“I think that across the country we see a lot more youth programs,” Puzo said. “And I also think that the use of social media and the Internet has allowed people to watch high-level hockey, and that has really helped the youth with new skills and being more advanced than maybe in my days back in the ‘90s.”

The United States, which placed last in the 12-team Olympic field in London in 2012, finished fourth against the same type of competition at last year’s World Cup and has climbed to No. 5 in the world rankings.

As Puzo suggested, young players like those at the clinic are able to follow the national team more than ever before. They arrived wanting to learn more, both about the skills being taught and about the life of an elite athlete.

During a Q&A session following the morning session, questions covered such issues as equipment selection, playing other sports, fitness training, injuries and the thrill of accomplishments such as making the national team, winning gold medals or beating Argentina.

While the crutches limited her ability to demonstrate on the field, Sharkey said she fielded questions throughout the day about the sport.

“They have a lot of questions for me about my high school experience here in the (Wyoming) Valley, at Princeton and with the national team,” Sharkey said. “I’ve just been answering them and hopefully inspiring some of them to pursue their goals.

“I think it’s just promising that there are so many girls here 12 years old and younger. I didn’t start playing the game until seventh grade. There are girls here that are younger than that and so far along in their game.”

Kolojejchick said the national team players are able to adjust to what skills the players are ready to attempt.

“You can tell what kids need at their level,” she said. “Some might need more of the basics so they can grow and learn to start working on reverse hits and these types of things.

“You can just judge it off of that, but it’s better to get them trying things. It’s fine to mess up, but just to not be discouraged by it, to try to learn new things. In the long run, if you learn the skills earlier, you’ll be more successful.”

Tom Robinson is a sportswriter from northeastern Pennsylvania. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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