IN NORTHERN KENTUCKY, BELLARMINE TRIES TO CARVE ITS OWN NICHE

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

There are two kinds of sports fans in Kentucky: those who wear the red of Louisville University or the blue of the University of Kentucky.

Which, of course, means that Division II field hockey hopeful Bellarmine, located in the heart of Louisville, Ky., has two strikes against it already. But consider the other obstacles Beth Korkin has been facing in her short coaching career there.

One is the tremendously crowded sports calendar in northern Kentucky. With all of the choices -- horse racing at nearby Churchill Downs, Cincinnati's pro sports teams across the river, as well as major college basketball -- field hockey is nowhere in on Louisville's sporting radar.

"In Louisville, field hockey is looked upon as a second-class sport," Korkin says. "Soccer is the up-and-coming sport there. When it comes to Louisville, and you are talking about field hockey, half the people don't know what you're talking about."

Louisville and Lexington have just begun emphasizing field hockey in their city's high schools, which allows Bellarmine and Louisville University to have a chance, however small, of keeping their hometown heroines.

Korkin, having played her high-school hockey in Kentucky, knows that the best of Kentucky's scholastic players are likely to want to get out of the South in order to play for full Division I scholarship money 1,500 miles away.

"It's getting there," she says. "(Louisville coach) Pam (Bustin) is starting to bring in a higher caliber of player. I'm trying to get more players from the East Coast and to start mixing up the intensity, skill level, and mindset."

Korkin gets to large events like the National Indoor Tournament, National Futures Tournament, and the USFHA National Festival when she can, but there are limits to how often her athletic budget can last.

"I have to attract a different kind of player," Korkin says. "You may get a kid who is a diamond in the rough. You can offer a kid so much money, but what matters is a good education, team morale, and a great city. I'm trying to get the focus on the whole person, not on field hockey only. I want someone who is going to do well both athletically and academically."

Compounding Korkin's conundrum is the fact that Bellarmine is a Division II program, meaning that it cannot offer full scholarships to its players. Its resources are somewhat meager in comparison to the shoe- and beverage-funded athletic programs in the Top 10.

"Our budget does not allow us to get out to the East Coast for games; we ping-pong everywhere," she says.

And adding to her problems is the new landscape of NCAA field hockey in 1999. Conference champions in all three divisions are scheduled to earn automatic berths in the Division I, II, and III tourneys, which not only expands the tournament field in each division, but offers the chance for more schools to make the tournament. For the past decade, for example, the Division II championship game has been the exclusive property of Lock Haven (Pa.) and nearby Bloomsburg (Pa.).

Bellarmine plays its field hockey in the KIT (Kentucky-Indiana-Tennessee) Conference, which includes teams like The University of the South, Transylvania, and Centre. The arrangement is unique: Division II and III schools play in the conference, which could lead to interesting choices in the next year or so when it comes to membership within the NCAA umbrella.

"I think if the KIT makes itself into a formal conference, it would be a Division III conference, and it we join it, we could lose our D-II status," Korkin says. "That's an area of the rules I do not understand in that if we have a good enough record, it will be a couple of years before we can join the (NCAA) tournament. It's something the school has to look at, too."

These days, Bellarmine not only plays Division II and III schools, but has added Division I Louisville to its 1999 slate of games.

Could Louisville/Bellarmine eventually become the equivalent of the Kentucky/Louisville rivalry in men's basketball? Stay tuned.

 
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