RAMAPO, LAFRONZ ATTEMPT TO BUILD A HOCKEY CULTURE

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

When Leslie LaFronz attended Northern Valley Regional at Demarest (N.J.) before embarking on a stellar playing career at Northwestern University in the late 1980s, there were a scant eight field hockey-playing schools in Bergen County, N.J.

Today, even after hard work promoting the sport through various club teams, coaching Wayne (N.J.) Valley High for a decade, and now as head coach at Ramapo College of New Jersey, there are still only about eight field hockey teams in Bergen County.

"It was kind of hard for me because when I was handed the job in the spring of 2003, I didn't have the time to recruit," LaFronz says. "I had to bring in three or four recruits, and the rest I had to get from students who were already on campus."

The thing is, Ramapo College of New Jersey is located in Mahway, N.J., near the median center of field hockey in the United States. The New York border is a scant few miles away, and Pennsylvania's hockey-rich Pocono region is a short drive.

That's three states with more than half of the available secondary schools in the United States. But the 2004 roster only has New Jersey players on it.

"I think that's because of the discount to in-state students," she says. "The thing is, we've gone from being a commuter school a few years ago to having to accomodate the 3,000 students who now live on campus. We can't keep up with the demands of the students."

A $45 million athletic center is now a major feature of the campus, and LaFronz is taking as much of an advantage of that investment as possible. The Roadrunners entered their second season as a varsity program in 2004, and have begun to show themselves as more-than-worthy competitors in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC), the toughest Division III field hockey conference in the nation.

"We're right there," LaFronz says. "We lost 9-0 to Montclair State last year and lost only 3-0 this year. We also took The College of New Jersey to overtime and lost."

One big reason for the Roadrunners' improvement in 2004 is the team's starting goalkeeper, Katelyn Ferguson. She was a tranfer from William Paterson who wanted to play closer to her High Point home.

"After the TCNJ game, the coaches came to me and said, 'You have a Division I goalie on your hands,'" LaFronz says. "She had over 30 saves against TCNJ, and she has that work ethic that tells me that she wants to win."

Ferguson, a sophomore, holds the team's captaincy.

"Not everyone wants that responsibility," LaFronz says. "And, being a first-year team, I didn't want to pick a captain."

Another player who has done well for Ramapo in its second varsity season is attacker Katie Stern, who played for LaFronz at Wayne (N.J.) Valley.

In the second half of a mid-season game at Hood College, Stern broke a goalless draw with a dipping blast from 12 yards, then snaked a shot from the edge of the D into the goal cage four minutes later.

LaFronz has a lot to do in order to compete in the NJAC, but she knows that her building process has barely started, with a roster full of sophomores and freshman players.

Much of her work has to do with getting potential upstate recruits interested in the school, and to get more upstate programs instituted.

It will be a long haul; the state's better recruits still come from south of Interstate 195, and the state's scholastic tournament is the only one that had to redraw its boundaries to give northern teams a competitive chance against the powerful South Jersey schools.

"Well, it's not that you're not getting quality from the North Jersey schools," LaFronz says. "It's more about the quantity."

And that appears to be an object lesson coming from the 2003 season; the varsity had just 13 members that first season.

"To come out of that season with no major injuries was just amazing," LaFronz says. "The indicators are all there for a tremendous career for these girls."

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