By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

When Sharon Taylor retired from her position as field hockey coach at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania to move to the athletic director's slot, she hired Pat Rudy with a promise: the team could move from NCAA Division II to Division I whenever Rudy wanted.

In 2004, Taylor and Rudy made the move, and made it work, winning 10 of the first 11 matches of the season.

It's just another chapter in the long, colorful history of the varsity field hockey team at Lock Haven. Teams have been representing the school since at least 1945, and have competed at different levels under the auspices of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) and the NCAA.

Since the AIAW started holding national championships for field hockey, the Eagles have been title contenders. Several appearances in the national tournament peaked with an AIAW Division II championship in 1981.

The NCAA took over sanctioning women's sports in 1982, but Lock Haven won that national Division II championship as well. But after that season, Lock Haven suddenly found itself in a difficult position: a "tweener."

"The NCAA took away the Division II championship after the 1982 season," explains former Lock Haven coach and present athletic director Sharon Taylor. "All we wanted to do was to play in our conference (Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference) so in order for us to do that, we would have to play Division III."

The Eagles added a Division III crown in 1989, then took advantage of the reformation of Division II, making seven of the next nine NCAA title games.

For most of those seasons, Lock Haven played its PSAC rival, Bloomsburg, for the Division II title, if not the PSAC championship the previous week. The teams had met 51 times over the years, by far the most meetings in each other's varsity histories. The teams met in seven title games in a row, and eight of nine.

"I mean, how many times can you play Bloomsburg, really? The PSAC made a rule making (the regular season) a double round-robin last year, so you could play them in the conference, the conference tournament, then in the NCAAs," Taylor says. "It made no sense."

In 2004, the Eagles moved back to NCAA Division I for the first time since 1988 and started the season better than anyone could have imagined.

The team's 10-1 start -- which includes wins over some historically strong Lehigh, Villanova, and Georgetown teams -- is a byproduct of some unusually high-skilled play. Although the pace of the team is not quite that of the ACC or the upper half of the Big Ten, Lock Haven is a thinking team that uses space as well as some national teams.

"We do have very strong players, and are well-funded, and we play a lot of Division I schools during spring hockey," says LHUP head coach Pat Rudy. "It's a lot more challenging and motivating knowing that you're going to get a different opponent every game."

Travel plans have had to change as well; instead of being limited to mostly Pennsylvania colleges in the past, there were trips to Virginia, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in 2004.

"The facilities and support staff you see at Division I are beautiful, and we enjoy the places we visit a lot," Rudy says. "We really want to take our game to the next level."

The change from Division II to Division I has rejuvenated several of the team's upperclasswomen, notably senior center forward Kellie Kulina.

Kulina had hoped to follow her sister Kiley to Division I Penn State, but found her journey to Division I athletics more than rewarding.

"Our team was ready for it last year," the younger Kulina says. "In the beginning of this season, we were a little nervous, but now we feel we belong here."

About the only downside is that she and her three senior teammates won't be able to play for a Northeast Conference championship in 2004; the team is ineligible for the conference tourney.

Still, The Haven's brightest days could be ahead.