Lady Cav playing for red, white and blue

Published 9:59 pm Saturday, April 2, 2011

U.S. Team: The U.S. Under-21 National Team, pictured with their Irish opponents in Dublin last week, earned two wins and two draws in five matches in Ireland and Germany from March 20-27. Lakeland senior Kelsey Smither, second row, second from the left, is one of five high school players on the U.S. U-21 team.

Kelsey Smither was absent from Lakeland High School all of last week on a trip that for many, teenager or adult, would be a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.

Smither and the U.S. Under-21 National Field Hockey Team played five matches in seven days during a tour of Ireland and Germany. It was far from a vacation, as the team was hard at work with no time for sightseeing, and just because Smither was missing class didn’t mean there weren’t lessons each day.

The learning experiences started before the first match of the tour in Dublin.

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The team gathered at the University of Maryland for two days of practicing, on Friday-Saturday, March 18-19, before flying across the Atlantic Saturday evening into Sunday morning. With losing five hours to the time zone change, the team arrived in Dublin around 3 p.m. Sunday.

“I was really tired, plus, I don’t sleep well on a plane,” Smither said.

After one night of trying to catch up on sleep, the U.S. took the field Monday afternoon. The U.S. played Ireland to 2-2 draws Monday and Tuesday.

It was the U-21 debut for Smither, one of five high school players on the team, but not her international debut, as she played on the national U-17 team in 2010, which included a tournament in Uruguay.

Smither led the Lady Cavaliers to the Virginia Group AAA state championship in the fall while breaking the national high school record for assists in a four-year career. She knew some of what to expect from the U-17 level, but this was surely another step or more up.

“Playing high school hockey, you get into a comfort zone. You learn what works and what doesn’t for that level,” Smither said.

“On the national team, playing with people so much better than you are, it’s kind of intimidating at first, but it makes you want to work harder and be better,” she said. “Knowing the level of the players, the players you’re playing with and your opponents, it’s just really motivating.”

The speed and style of play is a very different world, no matter the continent, when it’s one nation’s elite versus another nation.

It’s tough and takes excellent stamina, but top players have no problem playing every minute of a match at the high school level.

The U.S. team switched lines about each six minutes of action. The intensity of an international match and the strategy the U.S. coaches mandate dictates players going full speed, with all-out defensive pressure all over the field.

“So we’d all get a break and actually it was really needed because the game’s so fast. In international hockey there’s such a big focus on pressure,” Smither said.

Even the position was a new lesson for Smither, a central midfielder for Lakeland who was playing a wide midfielder, some on each wing, with the U.S. team. With the U-17 team, Smither was a defender.

There was another role very unfamiliar to Smither — the bench — but only for one game.

The U.S. took a roster of 18 players, but only 16 dress for a match. Smither sat out the second game in Ireland and watched in a tower above the field, studying video with a coach.

Immediately after Tuesday’s match, the team departed Dublin for Monchengladbach, Germany, for two days of practice, then matches Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

There were a few brief moments to experience cultural differences, along with the on-field adjustments.

There’s driving on the wrong side of the road. Being on the team bus going through an intersection with everything seeming backwards was part odd, part scary.

The Irish diet, “they served bread, coffee and tea with every meal,” Smither said, took getting used to.

After losing the first match to Germany 4-2, the U.S. coaches were disappointed and the players were upset at themselves, said Smither.

“They told us, if you don’t start (a match) with high intensity it takes awhile to get to where you need to be and you can’t afford that at this level,” Smither said.

Even individually, Smither got some advice a first-team All-American probably isn’t used to.

“They told me, during the beginning of the trip, I was too timid,” Smither said. “But then they were saying I was doing a good job of gaining confidence and becoming more comfortable.”

“I was just trying to work really hard on our pressure and play with a speed I have to play with,” she said.

The U.S. won game two versus Germany 5-1. The Germans got the opening goal before the Americans equalized in the 19th minute and went on to a blowout. Smither got her first international assist in the victory.

The U.S. finished the trip with a 3-2 win, scoring the winning goal off a penalty corner play with six minutes left.

“We saw growth in each game. Our second game versus the Germans, we showed our offensive potential and our last game, we showed a great balance with offensive opportunities and defensive structure,” said U.S. head coach Ainslee Lamb.

“It was so exciting because Germany’s one of the top programs in the world. Winning the series was sort of crazy. The coaches told us this was really good for U.S. hockey as a whole,” Smither said.