- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Katie O’Donnell is one of the most talented attackers in U.S. field hockey. You don’t need to know her number — or understand the sport — to be able to pick her out on the turf.

She’s the one scoring all the goals.

O’Donnell, a recent Maryland graduate, is one of 102 players who have convened at American University this week for the U.S. senior national championship, which concludes Friday. But unlike most, she is simply in town as a formality. While nearly everyone else in attendance is jockeying for a spot on the U.S. national team that would place them closer to the 2012 Olympics, O’Donnell is preparing for her fifth season as the team’s starting center forward.

At 22, she has emerged as one of the nation’s best players and strongest leaders.

“I wouldn’t say I’m doing anything differently,” O’Donnell explained. “Even in times past I feel like I’ve tried to step up. My natural characteristic is to try and be a leader.”

Known by fans and teammates as “Odie,” she recently completed one of the most decorated collegiate careers in history at Maryland. O’Donnell achieved All-America status in each of her four seasons, helped the Terps capture a pair of NCAA championships and edged softball player Jennie Finch to win the 2010 Sportswoman of the Year award.

National team qualifications are nothing new for the Pennsylvania native, who became the youngest player to reach the senior national team when she did so at age 16. As a 5-foot-2 teenager competing against the best collegiate players in the country, she felt a nervousness and desire to fit in that has since worn off. Now O’Donnell is just focused on working with her potential teammates and helping them play at the highest possible level.

“I’d say the best part so far has been our development,” she said. “The first game wasn’t the best for us in terms of organization on the field, and we worked it out for the following game. Hopefully in the next game, you’ll see even more.”

Six regional teams have spent the week competing in a round-robin tournament for the national championship, including O’Donnell’s Mid-Atlantic squad. At the end of the week’s showcase, 18 players are named to the senior national team. The winning region itself doesn’t gain anything but bragging rights.

But for O’Donnell’s teammate Dina Rizzo, that’s plenty of motivation.

“We want to win,” she said. “[The Mid-Atlantic] has always been on the cusp of being in that final game, but this year we definitely have the potential to get there.”

Rizzo is one of the few athletes in the championship not vying for a spot on Team USA. After making 133 career appearances for the national team over seven years, the 2008 Olympian is staying involved and mentoring some of the sport’s younger players, which she also does as an assistant coach at Maryland. She’s turned the page on her international playing career but is as excited as anyone to be competing in this weeklong event.

“It’s awesome to see these younger girls and the way the U.S. program has developed,” she said. “It’s going to be very tough selection-wise; in the past, it hasn’t been this challenging.”

While Rizzo has served as the Mid-Atlantic’s poise and maturity, 17-year-old phenom Maxine Fluharty has been its spark. A high school All-American who will enroll at Maryland in the fall, Fluharty has been described by Terps coach Missy Meharg as “potentially one of the fastest players in the world.” She has been a staple on the U.S. Under-21 squad and has all of the tools necessary to make the jump to the senior national team.

“It’s always nice to work with great talent,” Mid-Atlantic team coach Tjerk van Herwaarden said of Fluharty. “Max is extremely fast, and we can use that skill to open up the field and attack the goal.”

Ultimately, it will be up to U.S. coach Lee Bodimeade and his staff to harness talents like this in preparation for a major international tournament in Dublin this June. Beyond that, coaches and players already are looking forward to the 2012 Olympics.

“[The United States] is capable of coming in the top three if they really stick to what they can do. Finishing has always been a problem for us,” Rizzo said before pointing to O’Donnell, “but we have goal-scorers now.”

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