By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

The NCAA Division I field hockey championship race can be summed up in one neat equation:


The Atlantic Coast Conference was strong in the game of field hockey in the 1990s, but the 2000 season, because of good senior classes and superb recruiting classes, may signal a monstrous supremacy on the part of ACC teams. Short of a conspiracy on the part of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, there is not much that can keep four ACC teams from traversing the Road to the Final Four at Old Dominion University.

Leading the onslaught on the rest of Division I is the University of Maryland, the defending ACC and NCAA Division I champion. Oddly enough, the Terrapins weren't supposed to win the title until 2000; they had only two seniors on their roster, neither of which saw significant action the second half of the season. But the Terps parlayed that youthful fearlessness into a 2-1 win over Michigan in the 1999 final.

Maryland fans had every right to expect a drop in performance in 2000, despite returning virtually every player. Why? First of all, there is the weight of expectations on the part of the star-studded senior class: Keli Smith, Rachel Hiskins, Molly Kauffman, Lindsay Gorewitz, Sarah Rappolt and Carla Tagliente.

Too, going into the year 2000, Maryland was not expecting Tagliente to join the team; she would have likely been amongst the 16 members of the U.S. women's Olympic field hockey team. But, if you've read this website enough times, you already know what happened to the U.S. team in qualifying. Tagliente's presence in 2000 represense an immense gift; the team would have been Top 10 material even without her. With her, the Terps should already be getting their reservations for Norfolk.

Tagliente, Smith, Hiskins, and junior Caroline Walter are four returning All-Americans for the Terrapins. It is the biggest returning groups of All-Americans in some time.

"We have a tremendous core of seasoned athletes returning to our team," says Maryland head coach Missy Meharg. "I cannot say enough about Rachel, Keli, Carla and Caroline. Those women are absolutely tremendous field hockey players and tremendous leaders in their own ways. They lead by example and that is a wonderful way to be leaders."

Along with Walter, there is an deep junior class including Autumn Welsh, Dina Rizzo, Megan Kelly, and goalkeeper Ashley Hohnstine.

The Terrapins have not only been working hard in the offseason, they have been lauded as paragons of today's American women's sports scene. They were honored by the Maryland state senate, and even went to nearby Annapolis the week before the season started to watch the U.S. women's soccer team in a training session. The players beamed and chatted while receiving autographs and well-wishes from Brandi Chastain, amongst others.

The team that should challenge Maryland the most in 2000 is ACC rival North Carolina. After winning three straight NCAA titles in the mid-90s, the Carolina blue had no longer struck the same fear in the hearts of opponents. However, the underclasswomen that head coach Karen Shelton recruited in the past few years have matured greatly.

Tops among them is fullback Jana Toepel, whose crushing drives are not only a hallmark of Team USA, but of the United Airlines League champion Southern Charm. Toepel is being moved to center-mid this season to help out the attack.

It's not as though the front line will need much help; attackers Kristin McCann, Holly Huff, and Abbey Woolley are proven scorers. If anything, the Heels' concerns lie on defense. Not only has Toepel moved from her sweeper position, star back Pembry Keller chose not to play her senior season at UNC. This means that a great deal will be asked of new sweeper Abby Martin, goalkeeper Amy Tran, and backs Erin Cox and Susan Hayes.

Up Tobacco Road, the Duke Blue Devils, which could finally make its long-awaited national breakthrough thanks to the maturation of Liz Tchou's recruiting classes. Midfielder Kim Susko is a senior this season, as well as fullbacks Courtney Sommer and Moe Denney, and forward Jenelle Moore.

The youngsters will have to produce, and they have thus far. Sophomore Chrissy Ashley has shown explosiveness in early play in 2000, and much will be asked of veteran back Robin Merritt, forward Melissa Yuppa and midfielder Sarah Wright. A good recruiting class including wing midfielder Kim Gogola, link Jess Fluck, and forward Stacey Tsougas, will have plenty of chances to contribute.

It is hard to think of a season in which Virginia is not a contender for top Division I honors. Thanks to one of the nation's top recruting classes, the question for the Cavaliers will not be if they will win an NCAA title, but when.

That's because there are just three seniors on the 2000 Cavalier team, meaning that there are a lot of opportunities for youngsters to break into the lineup. The seniors are the perfect shepherds for this young group: goalkeeper Becky Worthington, fullback Julia Richardson, and attacker Lorraine Vizzuso.

The reason Cav fans have hope for their team is because of the immense talent in the underclasses. Chief amongst them are junior midfielder Jessica Coleman, sophomore back Kelli Hill, junior midfielder Carrie Goodloe, and sophomore midfielder Taylor Roundree.

And do we need to get into the Cavaliers' freshman class? It is one of the top three in the country, led by right winger Katie Nicholson, the top prospect in the nation for the Class of 2000. She joins Katie Jo Gerfen, her Spirit of USA teammate, along with Virginia blaster Kiersten Van Hooser and redshirt freshman Emily White.

So, where does this leave Wake Forest? Well, the Demon Deacons and their coaching staff seemed to learn something from a 1998 season which ended with only 11 available players. In contrast to that disaster, Wake Forest managed to start strong, keep healthy, and finish strong. The Deacs' overtime loss to Maryland in the 1999 ACC title game made the team believers.

However, the graduation of clutch goalkeeper Meaghan Nitka and four other seniors makes coach Jen Averill's choices on defense more critical. Freshman Lucy Shaw comes from Canada with a reputation as a solid defender. Lynne Shenk is an all-around great from Pennsylvania. Amy Marchell and Carrie Neidhardt are good defensive midfielders.

On attack, look for sophomores Maria Whitehead and Marlena Reese along with juniors Jemima Cameron and Jennie Shelton to have big seasons; they helped in an unforgettable run to the ACC championship game, and could do the same in NCAA play this season.

The way this preview is structured, you might think that the rest of Division I should just pack it in before the season even begins. But that's why teams play on a shimmering green surface, not on paper.

However, to understand the problems most top contenders face in facing the formidable ACC, just consider the three teams that fell short of the NCAA title.

Iowa's program returns a number of good players, but there is total turnover in the coaching staff. Tracey Greisbaum takes over the head coaching position, Lisa Cellucci as the assistant, and Meaghan Nitka as the goalkeepers' coach.

Cellucci, a goalkeeper herself for Team USA, will be able to help Nitka in breaking in goalkeeper Barbara Weinberg, of whom much will be asked depending on the peformances of redshirt freshman Saleeman Rogers and sophomore Emily Rinde-Thorsen.

The attack will be strong, since only four field players graduated. Look for back Natalie Dawson to have an extremely strong season, alongside youngsters Tiffany Leister, Gina Carr, Lauren Edwards, and Tiffany Fodera.

Michigan, despite having a number of good young players, loses a lot with the graduation of Ashley Reichenbach, the fine senior who was the heart and soul of the NCAA finalists.

The new season, however, means new possibilities. Senior Kelli Gannon had an extremely strong 1999 season, and the attacking duo of Jessica Rose and April Fronzoni may eventually become one of the best ever in NCAA hockey.

The addition of Californians Erika Banuelos and Kristi Gannon (Kelli's younger sister) means that Michigan's place in the Final Four may be secure a few years down the road.

Connecticut loses a great goalkeeper in Danielle Vile, which drops this team down a notch in terms of defensive intensity. The fullbacks on the UConn roster need to play big this season, led by senior Katie Stephens and junior Megan Ware.

A good deal of the team's experience is on attack. Seniors Laura Klein and Amy Herz will lead the charge in 2000.

Besides these three Final Four teams, there are a couple of others who may contend come tournament time -- unless, of course, they run into that ACC juggernaut.

One is the Princeton Tigers, a team which had a hard season in 1999 having to adjust to several freshmen in its lineup. However, the team is beginning to round into a solid unit. Goalkeeper Kelly Baril (Peabody, Mass.) had a tremendous offseason with the U.S. U-21 national team.

Ilvy Frebe, Emily Townsend, and Naela El-Hinnawy saw significant time along with Baril for a Princeton team that, while tying for the Ivy League regular-season title, lost out to Brown for the league's lone NCAA bid.

The question for Princeton, as well as its opponents in 2000, is, "Who can keep up with Hilary Matson?" The senior's breakaway speed consistently has befuddled opposing defenses, and much will be asked of teammates to help her in breaking down defenders inside the 25.

Chief among Matson's attackmates will be Melanie Meerschwam, whose skill and game sense were put to the test a year ago, along with senior Kellie Maul, who has shown glimpses of her scholastic scoring brilliance while at Princeton.

A number of superb young players will be looking to break into the lineup in 2000: New Jersey scoring sensation Cory Picketts may have the Tigers' hardest shot since Amy MacFarlane. Kelly Coyne is a superb goalkeeper with uncanny reflexes. And don't forget A-camper Claire Miller, who may wind up complementing Matson on the attack.

The other team which may break the ACC juggernaut is Old Dominion, whose sudden exit from the 1999 NCAA tournament was perhaps the most unexpected event of last season.

The Monarchs not only return top sniper Marina DiGiacomo, but also get transfer Kelly Malinoski (West Deptford, N.J.) from Penn State. Other than that, however, ODU is very young. Forwards Tiffany Snow (eight goals), Laura Steadman (nine), and Majolijn van der Sommen (11) follow DiGiacomo's 40 goals as the leading returning scorers for the Monarchs.

Goalkeeper Marybeth Freeman was outstanding in the cage in 1999, posting a 1.41 goals-against average.

Here's a categorical look at the rest of Division I field hockey:

Conference to watch: What else? The ACC.

Dark horse: Rider. Yes, that's right. Rider.

The small liberal-arts college, being located in Lawrence, N.J., has been called "the fourth best field hockey team in Central Jersey, behind Princeton, Trenton State, and the Mercer County Tournament scholastic champion."

That might change soon. A couple of major college prospects -- midfielder Tracey Speck and goalkeeper Jen Cushinotto -- literally dropped into Rider's lap in the past couple of seasons. Over the off-season the university hired a hockey-only coach in former Trenton State College All-American Lori Hussong. She comes from the scholastic program at Princeton Junction West Windsor-Plainsboro (N.J.) with impressive credentials, the desire to win, and the willingness to push her players to their physical limitations.

Things could get interesting as early as this fall.

Best recruting classes: 1. Harvard. It may be said, like all Ivy and non-scholarship schools, that the university sells itself. However, the talent that Sue Caples will have at her disposal is nothing short of amazing. Start with Baltimore player of the year Jen Ahn, along with three other TopOfTheCircle.com Top 100 players: attacker Katie McDavitt, midfielder Mina Pell, and goalkeeper Kate Zacharian. These players and the new turf should make the Crimson very interesting to watch.

2. Virginia. Nicholson, Gerfen, Van Hooser. Enough said.

3. Michigan. Fronzoni is a spitfire of a forward, Kristi Gannon may turn out to be one of the best. But the addition of Erika Banuelos may turn out to be incredibly important in the future.

Teams which will have the most difficult time repeating last year's successes: 1. Penn State; 2. Dartmouth; 3. Lafayette

Biggest off-season story: The surprise resignations of several prominent head coaches. Any pundit who predicted that Julie Dayton of Dartmouth, Christy Morgan of James Madison, and Beth Beglin of Iowa would not be back in 2000 would have had their heads examined.

One can question all day the reasons for these three to leave, but the more pressing issue is how their replacements will do.

Second-biggest off-season story: The departure of Tara Mounsey from Brown University to train full-time with the U.S. women's ice hockey team. Mounsey, who had little field hockey experience, became one of the most valuable players for the team that was the upset Ivy League champions. But it is likely that Mounsey will not be back to Brown anytime soon; rumors persist of a professional women's ice hockey league after the 2002 Olympics.

It's a pity that we won't see her except on the ice from now on; her field hockey education was so much fun to watch in 1999.