MANHEIM, Pa. - Spectators arriving for last week's finale of a three-game women's field hockey series between Team USA and visiting Chile were met by the pungent scent of manure from the farms surrounding the Spooky Nook Sports complex, a facility as massive as it is both oddly named and located.
But by the time those fans had made the long trek through the 700,000-square-foot facility, which its operators claim is America's largest indoor sports center, and reached the outdoor hockey field's grandstands, the aroma had vanished.
Whatever caused it, the unpleasant odor's disappearance was an apt metaphor for how their relocation to this 50-acre patch of rural Pennsylvania has freshened the air around the U.S. team.
Twelfth and last at the 2012 London Olympics, which they prepared for at a training center in Chula Vista, Calif., the Americans have been climbing up the field hockey ladder since relocating to Lancaster County in 2013. Led by Blue Bell's Katie Bam, they were fourth in the 2014 World Cup, won the 2015 Pan-American Games, and now are seventh in the world rankings. And they haven't lost in the 15 international matches played here, including the three most recent victories over Chile.
It's hardly coincidental that this upswing followed a move back to America's field hockey hotbed by a team whose current 26-woman roster includes 12 from Pennsylvania, four from New Jersey, and a Delawarean.
"After London, when we came in 12th out of 12, we did a review," said Simon Hoskins, Team USA's British-born executive director. "One of the big findings was that players felt being so far away from their support network was detrimental to performance. Most of our sport is centered in the Northeast, of course, and while the Olympic Training Center in California was great, there was that great distance gap."
Kait Mitchell, the team's communications manager and a Lancaster County native, said: "We were playing before friends and family. Now we're having sellouts where thousands of people show up. It's just tremendous."
Other factors have contributed to the Americans' rise. Head coach Craig Parnham, another Englishman who had a long involvement with field hockey there, was hired soon after the London Games. For his assistant, he chose Janneke Schopman, a two-time Olympic medalist from the Netherlands, the women sport's powerhouse.
"We're confident we have the best coaches in the world," said Hoskins, a veteran of professional rugby and soccer administration who was hired last August.
During their nearly eight years in California, the players trained in a vacuum. Here, where the sport that was born at elite, 19th-century British schools is wildly popular, they're mini-celebrities. The Chile series finale, for example, drew several thousand fans who had purchased tickets ranging from $10 to $18.
"In Chula Vista, we could go to a restaurant wearing our Team USA jackets and no one would notice," said Michelle Kasold, a 28-year-old forward from North Carolina. "Here, we go out and people come up to us and want to talk or want our autographs. It's such a difference."
Here practically year-round, except for a monthlong winter trip to Chula Vista, Kasold and many of her teammates have purchased or rented nearby homes. Most are supported by personal or commercial sponsors. A few have part-time, online jobs and some take college courses online.
"They leave here and go home just like any normal working person," Hoskins said.
The story of how these American Olympians ended up here, in a vast field just west of Lancaster off Route 283, is a one of good timing.
While seeking a new Eastern locale in the months after the London Games, officials at Team USA headquarters in Colorado Springs learned that Sam Beiler, the former owner of the Auntie Anne's pretzel chain, was developing an enormous complex. One of the sports he planned to include was field hockey.
After negotiations with Team USA officials, Spooky Nook's field hockey piece expanded. The outdoor stadium, with its water-based artificial turf, grandstands, and electronic scoreboard, was added, as was a dome-covered field where the team could weather the Pennsylvania winters. (Ironically, the only other domed field hockey facility in the world is also located in Manheim - Germany.)
Named for a bordering rural road, Spooky Nook also includes dozens of tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts; indoor and outdoor soccer fields; an indoor baseball infield and outdoor diamonds; climbing facilities; a fitness center; and a hotel and upscale restaurant.
On a visit, International Hockey Federation president Leandro Negre called it "the most amazing facility I've ever seen." Hoskins said visiting teams have the same reaction.
"This Chile team, for example, has just been blown away," he said. "It's a high-performance environment. They can walk straight off this field and into the strength and conditioning room or the locker room. There's no lost time. They can be full-time athletes here."
Next week, officials will select the 16-woman team that will play in June's Championship Trophy competition in London, an event comprised of the world's top-ranked teams. That roster, said Hoskins, should closely resemble the Olympic squad, which will be revealed July 1.
Before that, there will be a two-game match in the Netherlands against the defending Olympic gold medalists, the Championships Trophy in London, and late-July games here against India and Canada.
"Then we get three days off and we're off to Houston with all of the American Olympians for processing before leaving for Rio," Hoskins said.
Bam, the most accomplished American player who, as Katie O'Donnell, was a Wissahickon High star, will lead the Americans to Rio, where the Dutch, Argentinians, and Austrians should be medal favorites. If experience is a prerequisite, then two-time Olympians Lauren Crandall (Doylestown), Rachel Dawson (Berlin, N.J.), and Katelyn Falgowski (Landenberg) could make a third trip
"The expectations have really risen," Hoskins said. "However, to manage them, we have to recall we are ranked seventh in the world and to win an Olympic medal is so, so difficult. But I think it's fair to say that we've proven we can compete with anyone. And this place is a big reason why."