AGAINST THE ODDS, HARFORD FIELD HOCKEY REMAINS

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

Community colleges in the United States have had a role in developing players in many sports. In soccer, Mercer County (N.J.) Community College helped develop Stern John, who became the scoring champion in Major League Socccer in 1998.

In basketball, San Jacinto (Tex.) had a prospect named Larry Johnson in the early 1990s who would eventually win a national championship at UNLV and earn NBA superstardom with the New York Knicks.

But you don't hear very much about junior-college transfers in field hockey making any sort of impact anymore. That is because there are only two community college programs remaining in the United States: Herkimer (N.Y.) and Harford (Md.).

Judy Davlin, the Harford coach, has been in the community college wars for nearly 30 years. She has seen the entire diaspora of field hockey change. When she started, the community college teams were as good as those in some of the AIAW teams, and games were mostly played for the love of the sport. The National Junior College Athletic Association championship was a big deal -- until the final tournament was contested in 1997.

Since then, the remainder of the schools have either dropped their field hockey programs, or converted their curriculum to four-year, like Butler (R.I).

Davlin has seen numerous prospects go to Division II and III schools, whether or not they were ready academically. She has also seen the NCAA turn the sport into a high-stakes scholarship contest with an international flavor. She has also seen the decrease in field hockey programs coincide with another trend.

"When soccer started in the high-school programs in the East, a lot of the coaches and athletic directors panicked and thought that was going to be the end of field hockey," Davlin says. "They thought girls weren't going to play both, so basically, a whole lot of community colleges bailed out. They have a lot of big (women's) soccer programs now. About 8 to 10 of us stayed, and now we're just hanging on."

Maryland used to have 16 community college programs; there is now just Harford's, playing in obscurity on its Churchville, Md. campus. The Fighting Owls have had to scramble to round out their schedule.

"We always played two-year colleges when we had the league," Davlin says. "And then we played four-year college JVs down to Division III varsities or JVs, depending on the college. We always played a variety of teams, and we're still doing that."

At times over the past several seasons, the existence of the program has been in doubt.

"I heard that they were going to try to cut our program," said Kim McNamee, the team's 1998 captain. "I remember the captains had to go to a meeting to talk about it. They ended up keeping the program, but the school doesn't help us out as much."

Plans are underway to cut the maintenance crew at the Churchville, Md. campus and contract out the services. But all of these money problems do not stem the incredible fan and alumnae loyalty that Harford's program generates.

All you need to do is be present at Senior Day at Harford Community College's home field, which is located inside a running track straight out of the 1960s -- complete with a 220-yard low hurdles course.

There, the Owls and their fans are completing a disappointing season, at least by their standards. In 1999, the team finished with an 8-7 record, a record not befitting a team which had been annual contenders for the national junior-college championship, and the national college club championship once the junior-college tournament was stopped in 1997.

"It's a very competitive league; last year we did fairly well in it, but this year we did not do as well -- but we held our own," Davlin says. "It's tough to get a good schedule together right now."

Despite the record, parents and fans came out to the game. Some 25 former players came as well. They come from all walks of life and went on to various careers after leaving Harford.

One of Davlin's proudest projects came back as well. Paula Beaudette, who holds the unofficial U.S. varsity college record for goals in a season -- 54 -- showed the kind of speed and skill which made her one of the last prominent junior-college field hockey players to transfer to a major Division I college program.

"She got a scholarship to Old Dominion, and they wanted her to change her stick, her style of play, and everything else, and that's not Paula," Davlin says. "The soccer team got hold of her, and she became one of (ODU's) top players."

Davlin knows that life in the junior college ranks is not easy. The players she gets are less a result of her own scouting and reputation and more of a result of the sophisticated scouting of the annual player pool. By the time the Division I schools skim the cream off the top, then the Division II and III schools divvy up the rest, schools like Harford and Herkimer are left with very little.

Players need, therefore, a good reason to attend Harford. Laura McMullen's reason is that she wanted to go to college near her hometown of Perryville, Md.

"Cecil didn't have any fall sports, and I knew Harford had a good program," McMullen says. "I also wanted to come here so that I could get a good feel for college instead of going away. I had my mind set on coming here."

Then there is the story of Brian Freeland, which is unique in U.S. colleges. He is the only male playing on a collegiate varsity field hockey program in the United States. He could not play at nearby Havre De Grace (Md.) because of Maryland's interpretation of Title IX statutes, which prevented him from playing on the school's varsity field hockey program.

"I found Judy and asked her if I could play, and thankfully, she said yes," says Freeland, a philosophy major. "I've gotten a lot of encouragement, and I was accepted into the group."

The presence of a male on the Harford varsity begs the question: Is Harford's program destined to be a living relic?

If Davlin has her way, the answer is a definite "no." The team has changed its uniform from its cotton polo shirts and plaid kilts to shimmering shirts and the polyester wraparound kilts popular amonst women's college lacrosse teams -- a change with the times rather than a rebellion against a shifting tide in community college choice.

"We'll hold on as long as I'm here; I don't know how long after I'm here," Davlin says. "There are a lot of people who want to carry on the program. We provide a service; we get calls from parents who want to send their daughters to a two-year college and want to play hockey. As long as there are kids who want to play, we'll still be there."

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