By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

There is a group of Highlanders who march into battle with kilts and long, thin weapons which have struck fear into enemies. This clan is one which fights hard, wins many of its conflicts, and makes music "when the battle is o'er."

But the Houghton College Highlanders is a field hockey team, not marching to the sound of bagpipes, but one which chants a hymn of praise to God after every game, win or lose.

Houghton, an independent field hockey team that does not have membership in the NCAA, may be the best collegiate field hockey program you have never heard of. It is also the best team in the United States which does not have a chance at winning an NCAA title -- at least until the school's probationary period ends sometime around 2000 or 2001.

The reason for Houghton's lack of exposure is because it is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), a collegiate sanctioning organization covering many small schools in the United States and part of Canada.

The NAIA operates in relative obscurity in comparison to the NCAA, though some NAIA athletes have become public figures. The men's basketball team from Central Arkansas once featured a star basketball player, Scottie Pippen, who eventually won six NBA championship rings. The NCAA Division I men's ice hockey team playing at the University of Minnesota at Duluth (the school plays an NAIA schedule in every other sport) produced NHL scoring champion Brett Hull.

Houghton's field hockey team has garnered some notoriety in the late 1990s because of wins over Division II powerhouses Bloomsburg and Lock Haven. Pundits have the Highlanders a major Division II championship contender once the school gains full NCAA membership.

"On any given day, we can be competitive," says Houghton coach Donna Hornibrook. "But as far as being a powerhouse, we're a long way from that. If we go into Division II, it's going to help our program, because we've been able to build a respectable program while not having a playoff opportunity. That's not an easy thing to do."

"Our name is out there, and people are getting ready for us a but more after beating Bloomsburg (in 1997) and Lock Haven (1998)," says senior Judy Johnson, who captained the 1999 team. "It's been neat because for a few years we've been a sleeper team, and we could come in and give teams a good shock."

Houghton's rise to prominence began when Hornibrook took over in 1994. She saw a team lacking coaching continuity, lacking consistency, and lacking that attitude which comes with success.

One of the first steps taken by the former Canadian national team member was to place Canadian teams like Guelph and Western Ontario on the Houghton schedule, then to add powerhouse NCAA Division II and III teams like William Smith, Lock Haven, and Bloomsburg.

"We hadn't had the respect as a program, and teams in the highest levels of Division II and Division III weren't anxious to jump in and play us," Hornibrook says. "But as the program has gotten better, we've been able to schedule tougher opponents. We've had a lot of success."

Houghton posted a 15-1 record in 1998, which included a win over Lock Haven. As such, the team is a definite contender for Division II honors once the school's probationary period ends.

"We've been beating top teams, and Coach has been doing a tremendous job recruiting players and making us better," Johnson says. "I'm just really happy for the younger girls (who will be playing for the Division II crown) that they'll have the opportunity to do well."