BRYANT'S SECOND SEASON IN DIVISION II COULD PAY OFF

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

It can be said that the athletic department of Bryant College, one of the nation's better business colleges, made a curious investment in 1999.

Division II field hockey in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is not exactly a growth industry, as it was in the midst of some shrinkage in the late 1990s.

However, a calculated risk was made. The school, located in Smithfield, R.I., decided to upgrade its long-time club program and give it Division II varsity status.

"It went pretty well, we were pretty young," said Bryant coach Coni Fichera, of the inaugural 1999 season. "We had a club team in place for 10 years, but it had never been coached. I took the existing team, gave them the lay of the land as to where the program was going, and seven of the women on that team decided they'd like to stick it out and see if they could make the team. We had 18 players -- not bad when we had only half a year to recruit."

Division II is the smallest of the NCAA classifications, with around 25 teams. Most D-2 schools offer partial athletic scholarships, though Bryant does not. The competition within the division has been very much a two-team dance in the last decade as Bloomsburg (Pa.) and Lock Haven (Pa.) have dominated.

Recent rules changes surrounding the NCAA Tournament, however, have meant changes. In 1999, it was mandated that two teams from different regions of the country had to contest the championship game. In 2000, the tournament was scheduled to include four teams instead of two. This means great opportunities for contenders like 1999 runner-up Bentley (Mass.) as well as newcomers like Bryant and Houghton (N.Y.).

"(Bentley's season) was great for us, and does a great deal for our conference," Fichera says. "I really think it's a great thing for Division II hockey."

Fichera's task as head coach is not a small one; in 2000, she is expected to improve on the team's 5-12 record of the previous season. But that inaugural season is an investment in the future: the team started typically eight to nine freshmen, and played four of the top 10 ranked teams in Division II.

"It was a very aggressive schedule, and I think it helped us a great deal," Fichera says. "We kind of have to recruit within our means until we make a reputation for ourselves."

The recruitment process may be helped by Bryant's reputation as a business and liberal arts college.

"It's not a huge school, so we don't have a huge profile," Fichera says. "We are looking for competitive student-athletes, but we are looking for more of the 'bubble' kids -- those who have some skills, but were not really coached in high school. There are a lot of them out there."

Some of them were already at Bryant before Fichera got there. Darcy Brown, Marybeth Winslow, and Erica Davis were all former members of Bryant's club team. In the 2000 season, they served as the team's tri-captains.

"If I could clone their heart and passion for doing something other seniors wouldn't do, we probably would win a national championship," Fichera says. "Their friends were convinced they wouldn't get anything out of playing on the varsity. But they did things that no one, including themselves, thought they were capable of doing."

Sounds like Bryant College's risky investment is already paying off.

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