GRASS TEAMS HAVE TO MAKE HARD CHOICES

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

Lori Hussong looked at her 2004 field hockey schedule with a little apprehension, a little resignation, and some degree of hope.

"You know," she said, "I think we only have six home games."

Hussong, head coach at Rider University in Lawrence, N.J., found out what many coaches have learned over the past few years: hosting non-conference matches on grass hockey fields is getting close to impossible.

Conference opponents? Sure, you have to get those games held on your home pitch. The occasional non-conference team with grass for its home field might also be willing to play. But most highly-skilled teams with international flair will avoid playing on grass, since it gives grass teams an advantage.

In 1998, Rider almost pulled off a Slippery Rock-esque upset of a Rutgers team that had beaten top-ranked Maryland three weeks previous. But that 1-0 overtime loss came on the Broncs' grass pitch located in the midst of the school's running track.

American University stopped trying to get home grass games a few years back. The Washington, D.C. school has the longest unbeaten "home" winning streak -- more than five years -- but that's because the team has not played a single home match at its Massachusetts Avenue ground. Heck, the Eagles rarely even practice there.

American has played "home" games at the University of Maryland, Georgetown, and the University of Maryland at Baltimore County for several seasons.

Schools which have grass are finding themselves falling behind, now that the majority of NCAA Division I colleges (and substantial numbers in Divisions II and III) have on-campus artificial turf fields at their disposal, some teams with grass fields are finding themselves falling behind in more than one way.

One way is in recruiting. Good players looking to play a skilled game will be attracted to schools with artificial turf rather than ones with grass home pitches.

Second, most sites for NCAA championships are now chosen with artificial turf in mind; the Division III tournament committee has joined its Division I counterpart in preselecting a neutral-site field since 2000, though the decision to go with a grass field for the 2003 Division III Final Four rankled many.

But what has really gotten grass-field schools thinking about installing an artificial pitch is the inability to host competitive non-conference games against good teams, which has left the grass schools vulnerable in NCAA competition, which is always held on artificial turf.

American is preparing for its eventual move into a new Massachusetts Avenue hockey-specific stadium, which had to be delayed because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scoured the area for traces of arsenic left behind when a chemical weapons laboratory was located there long ago.

"We have the money, and we have the plans," Jennings says. "All we need is the go-ahead."

Hussong is looking for a similar facility at Rider. But, given the fact that there are already four artificial pitches within 10 miles of campus, her options are open.

"I know they are going to try to renovate the basketball arena," Hussong says. "I'm not sure we're in the long-term plan yet."

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