DREXEL STRUGGLES FOR ITS PLACE IN PHILADELPHIA FIELD HOCKEY

By AL MATTEI

Founder, TopOfTheCircle

The ancestral home for American field hockey is the city of Philadelphia, where the young schoolmarm Constance Applebee brought the game to its Main Line preparatory schools more than 90 years ago.

Today, the city is home to its share of good collegiate field hockey, mainly led by its Big Five schools: Temple, Pennsylvania, LaSalle, St. Joseph's, and Villanova. However, in a parallel situation to the town's men's basketball teams, there is an interloper on the horizon.

That interloper is Drexel, the small college known more as an engineering and design school located hard by the Penn campus in University City.

"We've surprised enough people over the past couple of years," said Drexel head coach Denise Zelenak. "Not in a whole bunch of games, but in key games every year, we've done really well."

The Dragons have a long way to go to become the top team in the city: it went 8-11 a year ago, and did not have a good showing in the rapidly improving America East conference.

It is a team which has to schlep some nine blocks to their athletic complex near Powelton Street, all the while knowing that its neighbor Penn can practice and play in mammoth Franklin Field.

"It's like on other campuses like Lafayette and West Chester," Zelenak said. "But because we're in the city, we take a shuttle to get there."

Zelenak, however, has made all of the right decisions over her four years in the rough-and-tumble world of Philadelphia field hockey. Only a handful of seniors have graduated the past two seasons, meaning that she can target her scholarship openings to fit actual needs, rather than trying to get the best athlete available.

Her latest recruiting class features a pair of deadly finishers. Pam Zukowski (Allentown, N.J. High) is a speedy forward with good touch and excellent finishing ability, while Nita Raju (Princeton Junction West Windsor-Plainsboro, N.J. High) has a shifty quickness and mobility which has made her a top player back home.

"Finishing has been something that I've been lacking," Zelenak said. "I've had to create forwards the past couple of years, making people play in a forward position. But if you don't have a nose for the cage, you're not going to score consistenly."

What is certain is that Drexel will be an improved team. Where and when that happens is anyone's guess, however.

"Our best year will be one or two years down the road," Zelenak said. "Hopefully, we'll make a difference this year, because Drexel has never been better than nine wins since it went Division I. Our goal is to break over the .500 record, and then to get into the America East championships."

There is one dream on the Drexel horizon which has not been realized, and it goes beyond the number of wins, championships, or lives touched.

"For us to succeed consistently, we need (artificial) turf," Zelenak said. "We definitely have the players, but if we're not on the turf all the time, when it comes to the end of the season, and we have to compete against these teams that play on the turf year-round, it's definitely a disadvantage."

Which, of course, is just another hurdle for this up-and-coming team.

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