By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

It might be argued that all you need to know about the 2000 Division III field hockey season is what happened during a 7-on-7 hockey tournament the previous spring.

The College of New Jersey was expecting to suit up 15 players (12 field players, three goalkeepers) for the tournament at Johns Hopkins. Then, word came that one of the participating schools had dropped out.

TCNJ was asked whether it could fill that extra spot in the tournament. Even though that would have meant playing all of the 25-minute mini-games without subs, the Lions' coaching staff agreed to the change.

Playing against schools like York, Washington, Hopkins, Gettysburg, and Towson, the Lions won both halves of pool play. Naturally, the two teams didn't bother to play the mythical "championship" game.

The amazing thing about the Lions' performance is that they were able to win without all-time scorer Tiffany Trockenbrod, midfielders Jami Holtz and Julie Pedrick, and back Kate Gould, all of whom have graduated.

Instead, the team was able to win with its core of veterans: sweeper Lisa DeFeo, midfielder Gwen Runkle, and attacker Kris Arnold participated in the devastating 7-on-7 triumph.

There are plenty of more reasons for the Lions to repeat as Division III champions. Chief amongst them is goalkeeper Jackie Conroy, whose outstanding play in the Division III Final Four was somewhat overshadowed by Trockenbrod's heroics.

Look for big seasons from the midfield: Megan McCall and Kerri Hunt, have been brilliant in the past, and watch for Sarah Dunworth, sophomore Michaline Koveloski, and freshman Jess Hamway to see significant playing tome on the front line.

The back line could be very young in front of sweeper DeFeo. Sophomore Grace Rarich has been hitting the weight room in the offseason and could be the real breakthrough this season. Jackie Scullin will be coming in as a freshman and could snare a starting slot out of training camp.

The Lions' biggest discoveries will have to be on attack, thanks to the graduation of so much offensive firepower. Arnold will have to lead the way, with Laura Chowansky and Linda Szczurek having to step up their performances from previous seasons.

The usual suspects will be trying to chase the Lions. Chief among them will be Middlebury, a team looking to prove that its fall out of the NCAA Division III tournament as the defending champion was a pure fluke.

A big part of what needs improving for Middlebury is the team attack. The team's leading returning score, junior Nahal Batmanghelidj, had nine goals. Attacker Sarah Theall added eight for the Panthers.

Goalkeeping should not be that much of a problem, as Becca Randall will return for her sophomore season. Under the pressure of repeating as NCAA titlists, she posted a 1.83 goals-against average. Oddly enough, Middlebury scored 2.72 goals a game in 1999.

That should tell you that Middlebury deserved a much, much better record than the 9-6 it posted.

But the reason why Middlebury had its problems was the play of Amherst, which made the NCAA Final Eight and won the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) and its automatic bid to the NCAA Division III championship tournament.

Amherst had almost gotten dethroned by Skidmore in the tourney, but managed to gain the runner-up position in D-3, losing 4-1 to The College of New Jersey.

For the Jeffs to contend, their veteran attack must produce, and produce big. Leading scorer (and assister) Alie Stechenberg graduates, leaving the leading returning-scorer chores to junior Robin Ackerman. Her classmate Beth Sensing had an outstanding season in 1999, posting a goals-against average of 0.87.

Another major contender to the Division III throne is a team which lost out on its conference's automatic bid by the narrowest of margins. Gettysburg, which has been building towards a good championship run for some time, lost its conference tournament championship in strokes to Johns Hopkins, then lost in the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs -- to Amherst.

But the Bullets haven't gone 35-7 in the past two years for nothing; the senior class comprised of attackers Kristy Moore, Jenni White, Tabitha Gary, midfielders Megan Eddinger and Whitney Walsh, and goalkeeper Maureen Giese have provided invaluable skills, leadership, and production over their careers.

It is a team which is mindful that the 1999 squad was probably three penalty strokes from greatness: three of Gettysburg's four losses came in strokes.

DePauw's performance in the 1999 tournament -- a close loss to Rowan University in strokes -- should give cause for optimism for Great Lakes-area schools in 2000. Chief among them is the University of the South, which lost out on an NCAA bid the past couple of seasons. One of NCAA field hockey's most remote schools, the Tennessee school returns most of its starters and remains stable in coaching.

"I will do everything in my power to win, but I don't think about (the NCAA tournament) a lot," Sewanee head coach Chapman Kern says. "Just to have a taste of the NCAA tournament was very exciting. As we come into (2000) with our entire team, minus two All-Americans, is big for us. Both DePauw and Denison's coaches are no longer there. I hope my team moves up because of coaching longevity. It sort of excites me."

Another contender is Wesleyan, the ECAC New England champion. The Cardinals were most impressive in beating Middlebury in the quarterfinals, then handling up Colby 2-1 in the semifinals before stopping Tufts 2-0 in the final.

Wesleyan was able to win its championship despite scoring just 37 goals -- Trockenbrod's season total at The Institution. That means that the play of goalkeeper Taryn Hutchins-Cabibi is even more critical in 2000. She was able to stop 86.8 percent of opposing shots -- a miracle in the no-offside era. Hutchins-Cabibi will have to do even more with the graduation of more than half the team's offense.

Key to Wesleyan's chances will be the play of senior Carlin Aloe (six goals, three assists) and sophomore Laura Pfeiffenberger (5-4).

In addition, look for ECAC Mid-Atlantic tourney champion William Smith. The Herons have been in three straight championship finals, having won the 1997 NCAA Division III title and lost the 1998 NCAA final before winning the ECAC Mid-Atlantics.

But you know that the hungry Herons would just love to devour another crown. First in the chow line has to be the scoring triumverate of junor Nicky Livinsgston (17 goals), senior Lauren von Bereghy (15), and junior Jackie Hall (14).

The defense has a pair of Upstate College Athletic Association all-stars in senior fullback Jessica Dascano and junior goalkeeper Marjorie MacVean.