Steve Jennings grew up in Bethesda, playing soccer as a child. He, like many men who now play field hockey in the United States, discovered the sport in gym class during his sophomore year in high school.

And that, in a way, is part of the problem the U.S. team faces: How do you fill a national team roster in a sport that few American men play? Men's field hockey teams are not found on college or high school campuses, making the talent pool quite shallow.

"If you want an idea of top level field hockey," Jennings said, "imagine Michael Jordan running with a stick, and having the possession and footwork skills of the world's top soccer players. We have incredible athletes on our team who are definitely capable of playing other sports."

Jennings, who attended Walter Johnson High School, is a starter on the U.S. national team that will face defending champion Argentina in the Pan American Games Friday. He is one of about 50 men in the United States who are considered elite players. There are 100,000 field hockey players in this country, according to the U.S. Field Hockey Association, but only about 1,000 of those players are male.

Most of the players on the U.S. team, like Jennings, have a soccer background. One player, Gus Reed, is a former ice hockey player. Four players were born abroad, in countries such as India that have a stronger tradition in the sport.

The United States is fielding an inexperienced team here; only two players have previous Pan Am Games experience. The team is 0-1-2, with 1-1 ties against Chile and Trinidad and Tobago, and a 2-0 loss to Canada, one of the tournament favorites.

The Americans have had recent success at the Pan Am Games, winning a bronze medal in the past three events. Their fortune hasn't extended to Olympic competition, where the U.S. men are 0-27-2 in six Games. American men won the bronze medal in the 1932 Games -- but only three teams entered.

The lack of international success is one reason the team remains largely anonymous.

"Our sport is not shown on TV, so kids are not exposed to it," Jennings said. "Any kid, male or female, who tries field hockey is going to love it because it's a great game. When we do youth clinics and show them tricks, and show them how excited we are about our sport, it's incredible to see the kids' reactions."

Jennings, 30, got a boost in the sport from Steve Simpson, an assistant field hockey coach at the University of Maryland. Simpson convinced Jennings to join a training group of mainly European and Asian players. Jennings was hooked; by the time he graduated from high school in 1987, he was on the junior national team.

Jennings joined the senior national team in 1991 and has the most caps (88) of any player on the Pan Am team. He was recently named the head coach of women's field hockey at American University, making him the third male head coach in the country.

Jeremy Cook, 24, also grew up in the Washington area, playing volleyball. He was first exposed to field hockey in elementary school, when he played it in gym class, but didn't start playing seriously until he was a senior at Einstein High School and met Simpson and Jennings.

Both players have played and coached in the Netherlands, a country that is passionate about field hockey. For the past four months, both have been living and training with the national team in San Diego in preparation for this tournament. Both are trying to do what they can to increase interest in their sport.

Jennings likes to say that field hockey has allowed him to travel the world -- he has played in 17 countries, met the King of Malaysia, and even has a picture of himself holding Socks, President Clinton's cat. Cook likes to share his passion for the game.

"When people ask what you do, and you tell them you play field hockey, you can see kind of a progression in their faces," Cook said. "It's like first they think, `That's cool.' And then it turns to, `Wait, that's weird.' But once you explain to them what the sport is about, they're interested."