By Al Mattei


The Charles River weaves through extreme eastern Massachusetts like an impatient cab driver in rush-hour traffic. As it begins to widen towards the yawning mouth of Boston Harbor, the Charles flows by green fields, antique boathouses, the Esplanade, and some of the most famous schools of higher learning on Earth.

One of these institutions, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hosts an up-and-coming Division III field hockey program looking to break into the William Smith-Middlebury-New Jersey echelon. But head coach Cheryl Silva knows that the kind of player who finds her way to the MIT campus is not the heralded prospect. Occasionally, the player who comes to the Cambridge, Mass. campus is that top junior-varsity player from a good high-school program who just happens to have an 800 math score on her SAT.

"The players we have are self-motivated, extremely smart, and want to learn as much as possible," Silva says. "They want to be challenged, and they want to get better. It's a pretty exciting situation as a coach."

There are certain obvious stereotypes that do not apply to MIT's field hockey team. The goalies do not spend hours figuring out the ideal angles to play on opposing shots. The corner attack unit does not figure in wind speed and direction when lining up a penalty corner, nor does it draw out attack angles and measure them with slide rules. They do not spend time figuring out the exact candlepower needed to light its home field, nor does they figure out the exact amount of water needed to wet its field to a certain friction level.

Not as though the Beavers don't have the brainpower to do so, if asked. It's just that these student-athletes are engrossed in becoming nuclear physicists or biomechanical engineers.

"MIT has a pretty strong feeling about health and physical education," Silva says. "Physical education is required, so there are many outlets for it."

One of the unique aspects about the MIT program is that its home contests are played at night. Shortly into Silva's tenure, she noticed that there were scheduling conflicts between late-afternoon classes and home field hockey games. Silva, ever mindful of the importance of the "student" part of term "student-athlete," started scheduling games in the evening.

Fans started coming to games, and you can hear the famous "e to the u, du/dx" cheer from the student body, especially if the team is doing as well as it has been doing in recent years.

"It's also great for other coaches who want to scout us," quips Silva.

The Beavers have had some successes since Silva took over the program in 1991. While a member of the New England Eight, the team managed to win the conference title in 1994. MIT's postseason history has been marginal at best, never making the NCAA Division III tournament and failing to advance out of the first round of the ECAC Division III tourney (the sport's equivalent of the NIT) twice.

But the 1999 season represents a new era for MIT hockey. The team has moved into the NEWMAC (New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference) which creates a different level of conference competition; its field hockey rostrum includes the likes of Wellesley and Springfield, both of whom have had recent succcesses in Division III play.

And then, there is the propect of the automatic bid process. In 1999, NCAA field hockey tournaments will feature more automatic conference championship bids than ever. The NEWMAC will send its champion, chosen through a postseason tournament.

"It will be interesting, since the team that will go is the one who plays best in a three-game tournament," Silva says.

Division III pundits have predicted that the smaller New England and southern schools will have absolutely no chance of getting out of the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament if they play one of the more established teams. Silva, however, believes that playing the best is a part of the MIT educational process.

"They would rather play a Top 4 team, get whacked, and learn something," says Silva, "rather than go out and shellac someone else."

Whether the Beavers win or lose is not the life-or-death struggle that many top-level field hockey coaches face these days. Silva couches her assessment of team success in something other than numbers. And on a campus full of left-brainers, that is highly unusual.

"I think some of our best teams, and my most rewarding coaching jobs, were not when we won championships," Silva says. "There have been some years when it has been very rewarding when kids go so far on so little."