By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle

Combine the name of a sport and a collegiate conference, and sometimes exactly one team comes to mind. "Big East football" translates to the University of Miami. "Southwest Conference baseball" translates to the University of Texas. "ACC women's soccer" means North Carolina.

And "NJAC field hockey" means Trenton State, even though the school name was changed to The College of New Jersey in 1996.

The 1998 season has begun to change that perception to some degree. For the first time in 17 seasons, a team other than Trenton State College or The College Of New Jersey won the league crown.

This year's titleholders are a team with a story similar to TCNJ; a team heavily dependent on South Jersey field hockey stars and one whose school has recently changed its name.

The team formerly known as Glassboro State -- the Rowan Profs -- have shot to national prominence by beating TCNJ twice in 1998. Playing a game of hockey based more on efficiency than flash, Rowan barrelled its way to a 16-2 regular-season record, and a home regional berth in the Division III tournament and the No. 3 ranking in the Division III poll.

The Profs parlayed that berth into an appearance in the 1998 NCAA Division III Final Four -- the first in the history of the program, though it dropped a heartbreaker of a semifinal match, 2-1, to William Smith.

Head coach Penny Kempf has known about her team's potential as well as its complexes over the past few seasons. She saw major potential in the 1997 Division III tournament when the Profs dropped an overtime decision to last year's William Smith championship team, again, by a 2-1 count.

"It all started clicking for us in the middle of last season," Kempt said. "We turned it on then, and this year we picked up where we left off."

This season, Kempf and her troops have come into every game with a new sense of confidence. No longer were Rowan teams psyched out before the end of pre-game warmups. Instead, this team is a mirror of their peers upstate at TCNJ: a load of experienced seniors who represent many of South Jersey's best scholastic programs.

Whereas Lions programs of the past were able to gain access to the ample rosters of Medford Lakes Shawnee (N.J.), Moorestown (N.J.), Mount Laurel Lenape (N.J.), and other South Jersey schools, the Profs this season have exploited this pool to an even greater degree.

Leading scorer Dana Reynolds and leading assister Joleen Jaworski are from Voorhees Eastern (N.J.). Goalkeeper Erin Grelle is from Audubon (N.J.). The super freshman Abby Singley is from Marlton Cherokee (N.J.). And up and down the roster are players representing Florence (N.J.), Ocean City (N.J.), West Deptford (N.J.), and Shawnee, all of whom have won state championships in the 1990s.

You can see a pattern developing here: South Jersey is becoming Rowan's territory after many years of losing potential superstar players to their in-state rivals.

Now, the players Rowan has been recruiting are not those who might have been ticketed for ACC or Big Ten stardom. They aren't meant to be.

"We want a team-based hockey game, and not three stars out there showing their stuff," Kempf says. "You can take away one of our players and we're still going to be successful. We have depth, and if we put them in there, it's not going to hurt us that much."

Previous to the 1998 season, Rowan had appeared in just six Division III tournaments, winning only once. However, the Profs have put that mental block behind them, just like it did in sweeping The College Of New Jersey with 3-1 and 1-0 wins, helping them post a perfect record (8-0) in NJAC play.

"It was always a mental thing, it was never a matter of who was more skilled," Kempf says. "Both teams are good teams, and it was a mental barrier we have gotten over this year. The mental barrier is worth a thousand physical things you can do. It can be so harmful, and it can be so helpful."