The Ursinus field hockey program

One in an occasional series.

By Al Mattei


You have to forgive young field hockey players if they have never heard of Ursinus College.

For many Americans of a certain age, Ursinus conjures up sepia-toned images of young women in medium-long skirts, long sticks with square toes, and autumn leaves, swept by the breezes coming off the nearby hills.

As one of the United States' first varsity programs (founded in 1919), as an early championship contender for the national title under the auspices of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (losing the first three titles to West Chester from 1975-77), as a crucible for churning out coaching talent, and as the site for the U.S. Field Hockey Hall of Fame, the small college on the outskirts of Collegeville, Pa. has served as a beacon, a model, and as a special place for the fans of field hockey.

But at the dawn of the new millenium, those in charge saw something else.

The Patriot League had notified Division I Ursinus that it was being dropped from its field hockey league at the end of the 2001 season.

Ursinus, however, chose a different and interesting spin on the situation, announcing that it would seek to play in NCAA Division III in 2002.

“The professionalization of intercollegiate athletes has been moving forward rapidly,” said John Strassburger, the president of Ursinus College. “The trend is almost wholly pernicious, and the time has come for us to separate our great traditions from it. We all should applaud both the long-standing success of our field hockey program and the new opportunity that awaits us to compete with the other best scholar/athlete colleges in the country.”

The Bears, admittedly, had not had the best of times. From 1999 to its final Division I season in 2001, the team has won just 14 times.

The school, while able to attract athletes from the better field hockey programs in the country -- Virginia Beach Frank W. Cox (Va.), and Lititz Warwick (Pa.), amongst others -- has not been able to attract the blue-chippers it needed to compete with the Lehighs and Lafayettes of the field hockey world -- much less Penn State.

As the program looks towards competing alongside the likes of Western Maryland, Johns Hopkins, and Bryn Mawr, however, the field hockey community needs to take a deep look inside itself for answers.

And these questions go to the heart of President Strassburger's statements.

First of all, how far was the university -- administration, athletic department, coaching staff -- really willing to go in order to become competitive in the evermore competitive world of NCAA Division I field hockey?

Yes, Ursinus may have been the proverbial guppy swimming amongst hungry sharks, but that hasn't stopped teams with high academic standards like Duke, Stanford, and Princeton from competing in Division I women's sports.

And, yes, the lack of scholarships can hurt. The reality is that few non-scholarship teams aside from the Ivy League schools can hope to compete with the well-staffed, well-financed field hockey teams of the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Big Ten.

But Princeton's success in the 1990s showed what many other Division I schools -- including Ursinus -- were unable to do the past several years.

One naked example: the inability to upgrade their operations. Ursinus College, at the time of its move to Division III -- still had a natural grass field (the team has since switch to an artificial pitch).

It also has just a two-person coaching staff -- head coach Laura Moliken and her husband Gabe as an assistant -- in an era when staffs of five or six are common.

Second, is this self-immolation more of a protest than a rational decision?

Possibly. However, it appears that this university president is realizing that the findings of the book, "The Game of Life," actually means something to his schools both in terms of economic impact and the quality of student attracted to their institutions.

Recall the words from the book's thesis: "Intercollegiate programs ... are moving steadily in the direction of greater intensification, increased tension with core educational values, and more substantial calls on the tangible and intangibile resources of their host institutions."

Ursinus, obviously, was not going to bend its admission standards to get that one desirable offshore field hockey recruit who might have played only a year or two, only to see her jump either jump to her country's Olympic team or to see her go back home for good.

But a university, putting its field hockey program out front in the name of academic integrity, makes a much smaller statement than nearby Swarthmore did when it ended football in 2000.

Instead, it should have been more about athletic integrity, given the NCAA's continued intentions to prevent schools from playing in more than one division, which would affect widely diverse programs such as the ice hockey teams at St. Lawrence, the football team at Georgetown, and the lacrosse teams at Johns Hopkins.

Ursinus, with its women's field hockey team being the only Division I sport at the school, could have and should have used some powerful Title IX budgetary and statutory arguments to remain with the rest of the NCAA's elite.

Finally, the real question should be, "Who's next?"

Might Division I field hockey become a two-tiered system like Division I football, where talk of a national championship can only be heard at perhaps 25 percent of the schools? (Some may say that has already happened.)

Might those schools newly entered in Division I like UMBC, Indiana, Quinnipiac and St. Francis find themselves scaled back?

Is it the case that another less-visible Division I non-scholarship school somewhere find itself having to make a decision on the field hockey team's future, especially if Title IX is ever weakened?

Ultimately, if the longest-running NCAA Division I field hockey program is on this shaky a ground, is any program safe?