By Gary R. Blockus | July 31, 2017, 4:36 p.m. (ET)

Team USA celebrates at the FIH Hockey World League Women's Semifinals at Wits University on July 23, 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

 

Things are looking up for the U.S. women’s field hockey team.

Last month, the team earned a berth into both the 2017 World League Final and 2018 Hockey World Cup when it reached the final four at the FIH Hockey World League Semifinals in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Team USA then went on to close out the tournament with a shootout victory over Germany, the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist.

Now the team enters this month’s Pan American Cup ranked No. 4 in the world, its highest-ever ranking.

The tournament, which runs Aug. 5-13, will be held at the team’s training headquarters at Spooky Nook Sports in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

With a balanced U.S. roster featuring veterans such as Jill Witmer, Michelle Vittese, Melissa Gonzalez and goalie Jackie Briggs and up-and-comers like Taylor West and Erin Matson, expectations are high for the home team.

“Coming off this big win in a world-stage tournament, people will have high expectations because we are one of the favorites here,” U.S. coach Janneke Schopman said. “But we are young, and I still think my team has a long way to go.”

The Americans open pool play against Mexico on Friday and are hoping to compete for the championship on Aug. 13. Argentina, the defending champion and No. 3 ranked team in the world, is expected to be the greatest competition. Canada, at No. 19, is the third highest ranked team taking part.

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For Team USA, the Pan Am Cup is only the beginning of an exciting period.

In November, the team will travel to Auckland, New Zealand and play in the World League Final for the first time, thanks to the 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Japan in Johannesburg. That win over Japan also clinched a berth in the prestigious World Cup next summer in London, which is second only to the Olympic Games in international field hockey.

Yet just as important as the wins, Schopman notes, was the U.S. effort in South Africa.

Team USA recorded shootout wins in both the semifinals and final, battling back from 1-0 deficits in both games to force the shootouts.

“It showed me that this team plays and fights and doesn’t get worried about a 1-nil deficit,” Schopman said. “Both games were very different. Against England (in the semifinals), we played very well and should have scored more. Against Germany we struggled. Germany dominated more of the game, but the encompassing theme was our willingness to work hard, fight and stay in the game.”

Witmer, a 2016 Olympian with 106 caps, led the tournament in scoring with five goals. The Lancaster native tallied the tying goal against England in the final three minutes of the semifinal. Team captain Gonzalez, a two-time Olympian with 209 caps, went a perfect 3-for-3 in the shootouts. Against England she scored twice, including the game-winner in sudden death, and was the first to score in the shootout against Germany.

“It’s great to see the older players like Jill and Melissa take leadership roles on the field and off the field,” Schopman said. “I was very pleased to see how they merged into being one team, one in which everybody does their share. That was their strength during this tournament.”

The veterans helped work the younger players into confident roles. West, now with 19 caps, scored on a penalty stroke with 2:08 left in regulation against Germany in the finals to send it into overtime, and the 17-year-old Matson, who has yet to begin college, scored the winning shootout goal against Germany.

“Erin asked me what she should do, and I said look at the goalkeeper and just trust your skill,” Schopman said. “It was very good to see she trusts her skills. The same with Taylor West scoring the penalty stroke, and she is not a very experienced player at all. It shows the team trusts her and that she can take the responsibility and step up.”

Because of the short turnaround time for the Pan American Cup, Schopman plans to utilize the same lineup she did in South Africa with one exception. Carissa Vittese, a defender with just one cap and the sister of veteran midfielder Michelle Vittese, will replace the injured Caitlin Van Sickle.

Gary R. Blockus is a journalist from Allentown, Pennsylvania who has covered multiple Olympic Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.