FIELD HOCKEY THRIVES IN A PLACE KNOWN AS "THE DOMAIN"
By Al Mattei
Tennessee is pretty flat when you travel along U.S. Highway 41A.
But once you reach the Cumberlands, traveling east, you see in front of you a sizable mountain region, and near the top of the ridge, you can usually make out a simple white wooden cross.
Keep driving up the mountain, and you pass through a stone gate that says, "Domain of the University of the South."
Sewanee, Tenn., population 2,128, is an unincorporated area that relies on the University of the South for much of its color and personality. The school is certainly unique -- the gothic architecture, the close relationships between students and professors, the Anglican sensibilities about how to mold young lives.
But from a women's sports perspective, what makes the University of the South unique is the number 35.20147. That number is the location of the university, measured in degrees of latitude.
When Chapman Kern took over the head field hockey coaching position at The University of the South in 1990, it was the southernmost NCAA field hockey program in America, and the only one in the state of Tennessee.
It was also in a state of some turmoil. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many NCAA Division III programs were in the midst of radical cost-cutting, and field hockey programs throughout the South and Midwest -- most of which made up the NCAA Division III's Great Lakes region -- fell by the wayside.
Sewanee was almost one of those schools. The program was stopped in 1989, but a committed group of rising seniors knew what they had to do.
"They marched past the athletic director and straight to the Board of Regents," Kern says. "And they managed to reinstate the program."
At the time the school was hiring, she was a masters' student at Springfield College, visiting her soon-to-be husband Matt Kern, when she heard about the open field hockey position.
"He had just left graduate school, where we had met, and I came in the spring to see if there was anything for me to do," Kern says. "And right on the athletic director's desk was a recommendation to hire a head field hockey coach and to hire a woman athletic trainer."
And, just like that, Chapman Kern became head coach. In her 10-year tenure at the University of the South, the Tigers have, despite their relative isolation from the rest of Division III field hockey, done quite well in recent seasons. In 1999, Sewanee was up for a bid to the NCAA Division III championship, but lost out to DePauw and Denison out of the Great Lakes region. They were two who were two of the 18 teams selected for the bracket.
"One of our goals is always to be in the (Great Lakes) top five, and I think only once have we been out, but it would be a tremendous feat for us to be No. 1," Kern says.
One reason that Sewanee has had difficulty making the tournament is because of its membership in the Kentucky-Indiana-Tennessee (KIT) Conference. The KIT does not have an automatic NCAA bid; the North Coast Athletic Conference -- the other Great Lakes conference -- does.
"We only have six teams, and we know that we could get a seventh team, but we don't want to get a seventh team just for the sake of having that bid," Kern says. "Lindenwood (Mo.) is trying to put something together, but they don't seem to have the program together yet."
It is hard to pin down exactly what has made the University of the South a contender for an NCAA bid over the past several seasons. Neither Kern nor assistant coach Joe Underwood make recruiting trips. There are no specific field hockey recruiting weekends like there are in major Division I and III programs during the prime recruiting periods.
There is, however, a strong flow of smart, athletic women who come to the school on recommendations from Episcopal schools and clergy nationwide. Many are self-motivated in the classroom and on the field.
"After 10 years of coaching, I have a pretty good network where we feed talent from," Kern says. "I don't have to work especially hard at recruiting."
And where Sewanee is thin in one area, she makes do. One of her former goalkeepers was Mary Kay Perkins, a Florida native who had never played the game before. By her senior year, she led the nation in the major goalkeeping statistics.
"Mary Kay needed to have focus and a place to transfer a little aggression, so she came out for hockey and won our conference championship for us in 1991 and again in 1992," Kern says. "She was a great success story, and was a sponge to coaching."
The University of the South, being where it is, has had to make some unique arrangements for its field hockey schedule as well as personnel. The team plays no weekday games, and has only three home weekends per season.
"I used to play two games in one day, frequently, but the last time we did that was two years ago," Kern says. "It took some skill to schedule."
There is a good deal of travel that the Tigers must plan over the course of the season. That goes for the team's support system as well.
"I see an awful lot of parents on our road trips," Kern says. "They travel a lot to see us."
It also has to incur a pretty good expense in umpiring; there is little umpiring in the state of Tennessee, and has to import officials from either Kentucky or Missouri.
"We have to pay their mileage, we often have to put them up in hotels, and there are, of course, the game fees," Kern says. "The referee problem does exist for our region; we are doing through a little bit of up-and-down when it comes to quantity."
Kern is beginning to realize that the university's place in American field hockey circles may not be unique for long. A new Division III program at Rhodes College has supplanted Sewanee's place as the nation's southernmost field hockey program.
"They took away my title," Kern says, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "But they have one of the nicest fields we play on. That's where our (end-of-season) interregional weekend will take place."
In addition, competitive club programs in the South at places like Clemson and Furman have spurred talk of the revival of college varsity teams in South Carolina, while rumors of a varsity field hockey program at the University of Tennessee or at Vanderbilt have persisted for years.
The potential for well-funded programs in the South has Kern assessing carefully what she has. At the moment, the Tigers are on their fourth different home field this decade ("it's adequate," she says), and she does not have the services of Underwood for the last month of the season; he doubles as the men's varsity basketball coach.
It is enough for her to doubt whether she is the kind of driven coach that can get the University of the South into that Division III echelon occupied by the likes of William Smith, Middlebury, and the New Jersey Lions.
However, the mountains can yield all sorts of secrets, and the Sewanee Tigers may not be a secret to the field hockey community for very long.
"I will do everything in my power to win, but I don't think about (the NCAA tournament) a lot," 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."