A Guyanese national indoor selection travelled to Canada on March 20 to compete in a Field Hockey Canada Invitational Indoor Hockey Tri-Nation series from March 22-24.
Also invited to compete against a Canadian national selection and a Canadian President’s XI were the national team of Kazakhstan. With a ranking of 13th in the world, the team from Kazakhstan would be the highest-ranked team of the series followed by Canada, ranked 17th and Guyana ranked 31st.
Guyana’s efforts to participate in this event were really motivated by the need to expose new young players to a high level of competition ahead of the next Indoor Pan American Cup (IPAC), which is scheduled for Pottsville, Pennsylvania in March 2020. The last time the Guyana women participated in international indoor hockey was back in 2017 when the IPAC was held here in Georgetown at the Cliff Anderson Sports Hall. This selection for Canada saw as many as six new faces on the 14-member squad, with five of them still being under 16. The Guyana Hockey Board (GHB) deliberately searched for young talent emerging from the Smalta/iCool junior tournaments over the past couple of years in an effort to begin preparation for the next four-year cycle in which the aim is for Guyana to attempt to qualify, for the first time-ever, for an indoor World Cup.
Guyana opened its series in Canada in the morning of March 22 with a match against the Asian indoor champions Kazakhstan. From the outset, it could be seen that the Kazaks were far more experienced than the young Guyanese who seemed to also struggle a bit with the fast smooth wooden surface on the University of Toronto Athletic Centre. While Kazakhstan put the Guyanese under tremendous pressure in the first half, superb goalkeeping by Alysa Xavier and solid defence work from Guyana’s most experienced players, Marisha Fernandes and Trisha Woodroffe, kept the scores at 0-0.
The second half would see the tide swing in Guyana’s favour as Woodroffe hammered home two powerful direct penalty corner flicks in the 27th and 29th minutes to give Guyana a 2-0 lead. Kazakhstan gave it their all in the final 10 minutes and came close to scoring on a few occasions, but Xavier kept them at bay aside from one penalty corner goal in the final minute. The 2-1 victory for Guyana over the highly-ranked Kazaks was an unexpected positive start for the Guyanese.
The second match for Guyana that very same afternoon; however, proved much tougher as the well-rehearsed and experienced Canadians piled on pressure on the Guyanese, who defended bravely to keep the score to 0-0 at the half. The Canadians, however, finally found a way past Xavier in the second half through a Kaelan Watson field goal three minutes after resumption and a second from Shannon Pereira four minutes later. The Guyanese, desperate to recover from the deficit, pressed forward and created a few dangerous moments, but left their defence vulnerable. Canada were able to find gaps in the experienced Guyanese side and stretched the score to 6-0 by the end of the match.
The second day saw Guyana facing Canada White, who had defeated Kazakhstan by 2-1 the previous day. Both teams fought hard to gain the upper hand in this match with contrasting styles as the Canadians, with the definite edge in experience, executing deliberate and systematic build-ups while the Guyanese absorbed the pressure and looked to counterattack with their superior speed. The match ended in a 0-0 stalemate and the points table at the end of the pool dictated that these two teams would meet again in the semi-finals.
The semi-final against Canada White saw the Guyanese having to chase from behind as the Canadians went one up through a Madison Babineau penalty corner only four minutes into the match. The Guyanese seemed to have their best match of the series thus far as they had better possession and showed creativity in attack than in previous matches. It took 30 minutes more of hockey, however, before the voluminous Guyanese cheering section was launched into an uproar as Nicole Eastman’s penalty corner strike beat the goalkeeper high in the left corner.
The 1-1 final score saw the semi-final go to a shootout, which similarly ended in a 2-2 stalemate and it took sudden death penalties to break the deadlock and Guyanese hearts, as Babineau scored immediately after Gabriella Xavier’s effort was blocked by Canadian goalkeeper Hilary Neeb.
The semi-final loss meant Guyana had to face the Kazaks once more for the bronze medal match, which turned out to be anti-climactic for the Guyanese. Having come so close to making the final, the 4-1 resulting loss to Kazakhstan was a great disappointment, although the disparity in experience was evident on that final day.
The Kazaks had corrected their penalty corner routine and made it difficult for the Guyanese to defend. Five minutes into the match, the Kazaks scored and then earned a penalty stroke off a penalty corner strike that hit the knee of Marzana Fiedtkou on the goal line. Experienced Captain Nataliya Gataulina converted to give Kazakhstan a 2-0 halftime score. The second half saw Guyana chasing down the Kazaks in an effort to save the game, but despite putting them under great pressure, the inexperience of the Guyanese was exposed when Kazakhstan escaped a high press and beat the Guyanese down the floor to score their third. While Trisha Woodroffe would finally get on the score sheet for Guyana with a 30th minute penalty corner, Kazakhstan earned their second penalty stroke of the match and Gataulina converted to finish the match at 4-1.
Team Guyana Coach Philip Fernandes indicated that despite the disappointing placement of his team in the end, a great many of the objectives were achieved during the series. Fernandes shared that the team, being fully aware of their unfavourable ranking and inexperience, had set a target to win or draw at least one match in the series. As it turns out, they won a match and drew twice during the series.
Fernandes noted that the Guyanese defended well throughout the series, but needed to improve on their offensive skills and ability to turn chances into goals. All four of Guyana’s goals came via the penalty corner route which highlighted the fact that they were not able to score in the run of play. While it is difficult to single out players in a team sport, the Coach was high in praise for goalkeeper Alysa Xavier who, in his opinion was the best goalkeeper in the series. Fernandes pointed out that aside from Gabriella Xavier and Nicole Eastman, both of whom carried the brunt of the attack, Sarah Klautky and Abosaide Cadogan had encouraging moments and showed that they had the foot speed to match the seniors. Guyana must now try to find a facility in which to train for the IPAC in 2020. While the GHB recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government for some land in Durban Park, that will take some time to develop and so in the meantime, the GHB could not afford to sit back and wait, as the other nations have clearly begun to prepare. The tile floor accessed by the GHB in 2017 remains inaccessible as basketball prefers to use the wooden surface at the Cliff Anderson Sports Hall and so the Board will need to try to find a temporary space where they can lay down the floor and have their teams train to be ready for 2020.