Field hockey had a rough start in Ventura County two decades ago.
"We got a rule book, a ball and a stick and went after it," said Tom Harris, who is widely credited with starting the sport in the area in 1968 with a crew of second-rate athletes from a variety of sports. "We used to break sticks and fingers. Vicious stuff, then."
Eighteen years later, the U.S. men's field hockey team trains at Moorpark College, and the area is considered the nation's leading producer of male field hockey players.
It is "sort of like a feeding ground" for the sport, said Jon O'Haire, a goaltender for the U.S. national training squad, from which the Olympic team will be selected in August. "Sixty to 70% of the junior nationals are from that area," he said.
Harris thought that this kind of recognition and success would come much sooner for the sport, which is played on an expanse of grass the size of a soccer field. He had wild dreams back in 1968. Maybe even delusions of grandeur.
"Honest to God, what we thought is that we'd get a bunch of guys together and win the Olympics, like taking candy from a baby," he said.
It turned out that the U.S. team was the baby. It failed even to qualify for the 1968 Olympics. In the '84 Summer Games, the U.S. team failed to win a single match.
The fresh memory of 1984 haunts the men who hope to play on the '88 U.S. Olympic team.
"They should've won, if you ask me," said Ray Fierro, a center striker who attends Moorpark College, of the 1984 team.
"Don't comment on that," interjected his coach, Rick Purser. "That's history."
In other words, that was then, this is now. The national team just finished a five-game series with Trinidad. Team USA won three times, tied twice.
Actually, there is no U.S. team yet, only two training squads--the seniors and the juniors. Purser, who took over as coach in February, is still testing the players' strengths and weaknesses.
"I had to learn about them and they had to learn about me," said Purser, of Melbourne, Australia. "We were really lucky to win some games."
It is a somewhat exotic game played best by natives of Southern Hemisphere countries such as Pakistan and Australia. It predates the kind of hockey played on ice by guys with French-Canadian names by about 3,000 years, give or take a century.
At Moorpark College, it seems especially exotic because it is played amid the roars of lions and tigers who reside across the street at the Moorpark College Exotic Animal Compound.
In last Thursday's game with Trinidad, the United States apparently felt at home in the jungle, using goals by Mohammed Barakat and Fierro to win, 2-1.
"It is to be remembered that I only had my junior players out there," Purser said. Seven of the 15 players on the U.S. roster Thursday were from Ventura County towns such as Simi Valley, Moorpark, Thousand Oaks and Newbury Park. "Taking that into account, I saw some good signs. I couldn't be totally happy. I'm not unhappy."
The goal by Barakat, who played two years ago in the Olympics, came with 10 minutes left and was the game-winner. He and Dave McMichael, another Olympian, were the two most experienced U.S. players on the field.
"I saw things done in the match that we had practiced," Purser said. "They knew what they were doing, although sometimes they couldn't do it. The ground was rough. There were a lot of goal shots missed.
"Everybody wants to see a player who beats 10 guys and scores a goal. That only works some of the time."
Purser is teaching the team, which has been defense-oriented in the past, some tricks on offense.
"It's a case of re-education," Purser said. "I'm offensive-oriented. When you play that way, you always risk having a goal scored against you. Big deal. We're going to score more. Why coach to stop them? You can only draw then--you can't win."
And if you can't win, why play? Why bother going to Ottawa, or London, or Perth, Australia, or even Houston? All are sites Purser's team will see before the year is out, all in the name of field hockey.
Harris predicts the team will enjoy playing more because this team is better than it was in 1984. The team will play the Canadian under-21 nationals this week in Ottawa, Canada. At the end of July, it will be in Houston for the Olympic Sports Festival. It goes to London in October for the Junior World Cup.
Next January, the team is heading to Perth for field hockey festivities in conjunction with the America's Cup yacht races.
"More talented, more dedicated," Harris evaluated the team preparing for '88 Olympics. "Yeah, I'd say it. Even if the same players were still here, they'd be more talented."
To prepare for 1988, the team almost certainly will have to win at the Pan American Games at Indianapolis in August, 1987, against strong competition from Canada and Argentina.
Given the rest of the world's strength in field hockey, however, even a win in Indiana would not guarantee the American team Olympic success.
"The Americas are pretty weak compared to Europe," said Harris. "The team that wins the Pan Am Games will probably be in the bottom four, out of 12, in the Olympics."
Even with all the talk about traveling the world and the Olympics, field hockey--even in Ventura--is not without its problems.
"The thing is really money," Harris said. "We have less facilities here than a high school basketball team. We have to borrow this, borrow that."
George Tyler, the manager for Purser's team, said he believes field hockey isn't a big sport in the United States because there is no professional league. "It's not on television and it's perceived as a girls sport," Tyler said. "In the eastern part of the U.S., it's mainly a girls sport."
In 1984, the women's field hockey team, considered a rising power, took home a bronze medal.
A few little leagues dot the nation. "It's growing in bits and pieces across the country," said Tyler.
In other parts of the world, the sport enjoys more respect. "In Pakistan and India," Purser says, "they play for national pride totally. They know their hockey players better than their prime ministers."
"Their top hockey players are like our Reggie Jacksons," Tyler said.