Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

Examine the tapestry which is Division I field hockey in 1999, and three gleaming jewels stand out clearly: defending national champion Old Dominion, ACC champion Maryland, and Big East champion Connecticut.

Each team has its own special reason why it is favored to make its reservations for late November at Northeastern University.

Maryland is favored because of its high number of experienced returning players. The Terps have but two seniors on the 1999 roster: Emily Ward (Ellicott City, Md.) and goalkeeper Zoe Erlich (Morristown, N.J.), whose services are even more important since last year's starter Angela Platt (Coleraine, N. Ireland) is not returning for this season.

The Terps will retain the services of its dangerous attack trio: Dina Rizzo (Walpole, Mass.), Carla Tagliente (Cortland, N.Y.), and Keli Smith (Selinsgrove, Pa.). In the back, sophomore Autumn Welsh (Macungie, Pa.) should take over the center-back spot vacated by the graduated Jen Pratt.

In the midfield, much will be asked of Caroline Walter (Reilengen, Germany) and Megan Kelly (Gathersburg, Md.). Do not be surprised to see highly touted freshman Carissa Messimer (Mountaintop, Pa.) plugged into the lineup.

While the Terps came up short of the Final Four a year ago, Connecticut comes off a 1998 Final Four appearance which ended with a loss to Princeton in the semifinals. To a woman, the players with blue and crimson uniforms will tell you that they could have played a much better game.

They just might be able to play a passel of better games in 1999, since the team returns mostly intact. Leading the charge will be senior Carrie Mahoney (Southbury, Conn.), and junior Katie Stephens (Hershey, Pa.) who led the 1998 effort with 13 goals each.

They will be joined by attacker/midfielder Amy Herz (Upper Moreland, Pa.) who is not only an All-American on the field, but in the classroom as she was selected to the 1998-99 NFHCA All-Academic Team.

Now, given the fact that the leading scorers for UConn had 13 goals each, you may be wondering how this team won the Big East championship and earned a berth in the Final Four. Well, look no further than former U-21 national goalkeeper Danielle Vile (Tabernacle, N.J.).

The strong senior, who possesses perhaps the most aggressive clearing techniques ever seen in American field hockey, was a driving force on defense a year ago, and more will be asked of her in 1999.

Given the youth of last year's Maryland and Connecticut teams, it seems unlikely that defending NCAA champion Old Dominion, graduating two experienced goalkeepers (Jamie Hill and Staci Smith) and Honda award-winner Mimi Smith, would ever be considered a favorite for the 1999 title.

But when you have Marina DiGiacomo (Mendoza, Argentina) on your team, that throws a different dimension into team chemistry. DiGiacomo has garnered such respect among her team for her playing and leadership abilities, she was asked to wear a captain's armband -- as a sophomore.

DiGiacomo does things no other U.S. college player can do unless they have mimicked it at "A" camp -- reverse-stick shots, drag flicks, dribbling out of triple coverage. She is so good that she can even trick an umpiring crew. One year ago in a regular-season game at Princeton, she flipped a thigh-high reverse stick shot into the cage off a penalty corner.

There were loud protestations from the Princeton fans that DiGiacomo's edge-of-the-stick shot attempt was indeed a drive and the initial shot off the corner, but the umpires allowed the score to stand.

DiGiacomo will be a team leader for the Monarchs, but much will be asked of her teammates. Look for Crystal Carper (Fredericksburg, Va.) to get a long look on the forward line. Much will also be expected from attackers Julie Miracle (Audubon, Pa.) and Kim Miller (Virginia Beach, Va.).

On defense, there is plenty of experience everywhere except in goal. There, you might be able to find redshirt freshman Mary Beth Freeman (Newtown, Pa.) in the cage. She has exhibited the flexibility of a gymnast and the toughness of a middle linebacker in her scholastic career, and will have to use every inch of her frame to keep opponents off the board. Seniors Becky Bearor (Greenwich, Conn.) and Ashley Miller (West Vancouver, B.C.) will be the stalwarts in front of either Freeman or Tiffany Semple (North Kingstown, R.I.).

Here is a look at the rest of Division I:

Other contenders for a 1999 NCAA Final Four berth:While we think that the world of Division I field hockey rotates on the triad of ODU, UConn, and Maryland, there are many other contenders in that morass of 73 teams looking for their ticket to Boston in late November.

Obviously, Princeton believes it has something to prove. The team, however, graduated eight seniors. Without their talents and all-everything goalkeeper Gia Fruscione, it is hard -- though not impossible -- to see the Tigers make a charge to its fourth straight Final Four. Much will depend on junior Hilary Matson (Marathon, N.Y.) on attack and senior Robyn Dwyer (Virginia Beach, Va.) in the midfield. Look for a big year out of junior Melanie Meerschwam (Amstelveen, The Netherlands), who should get an awful lot of freedom in the attack end, especially from her midfield slot.

Another team which could contend for that fourth berth is the University of Delaware. After several years of lurking in the hedgerows of the Top 15, the Blue Hens have been waiting for its moment to pounce on the nation's elite teams.

The 1999 season could represent that chance. With a healthy Juli Byrd (Pocomoke City, Md.), scoring sensation Megan Fortunato (Upper Moreland, Pa.), defensive back Kate Johnson (Abington, Pa.) combined with a recruiting class including the incredibly skilled back/midfielder Kelly Coyle (Lawrence, N.J.), Delaware could have a great shot at a championship.

In the midwest, one has to consider the situation at the University of Michigan. The Wolverines have among the best coaches available in head coach Marcia Pankratz, assistant coach Tracey Fuchs, and goalkeeping coach Peggy Storrar.

Year after year, these three Olympians have attracted tremendous players to the Ann Arbor campus. But the Blue's record in recent seasons have not reflected that excellence. Big Ten rival Penn State has won the last four postseason tournament championships. Last year, the Nittany Lions relegated Michigan to a 15-6 record, out of the running for an NCAA tournament berth.

This year, however, the likes of likes of Ashley Thomas (Unionville, Pa.), Ashley Reichenbach (Palmyra, Pa.), Regan Wulfsberg (Moorestown, N.J.), and Kelli Gannon (Escondido, Calif.) will take on major leadership roles in shepherding top recruits Stephanie Johnson (Houston) and Jessica Rose (Lititz, Pa.), both of whom were tremendous offensive talents in high school.

Dark horse for a 1999 NCAA berth: There are questions about the Dartmouth Big Green's youth and depth, and it is entirely possible that members of its incoming freshman class may choose to ditch hockey to join up with a lacrosse program with Final Four aspirations sooner rather than later.

However, this group's season could be the most fun to watch in all of Division I.The Ivy League is no longer a Princeton walkover, and head coach Julie Dayton knows that there could be a tremendous opportunity with this team. But to see whether this plays out, all one needs to gauge the Green's prospects are two key dates: Sept. 11 (vs. Syracuse at the University of Maine) and Sept. 25 (home against Princeton)..

Dartmouth must come out of September with its pride, roster, and record intact: if the team gets a bad start, it will not be able to boost its RPI rankings -- thereby squeaking into the NCAAs -- against the likes of late-season oppoents Columbia, Fairfield, Harvard, Vermont, and Cornell.

Best recruiting classes: When one class gets a speed-burner up front, a skilled left winger, and a forceful right winger, a coach would have to be pleased. Such is the situation at James Madison, which has bolstered its roster with the fleet Whitney Harris (Zionsville, Pa,), the skilled forward/midfielder Sara Zuckerman (Severna Park, Md.), and swing player Carrie Phillips (Macungie, Pa.).

All three not only have their skills in play for the Colonials, but the ability to win: each played on a state scholastic championship team their junior or senior seasons.

JMU also adds Valerie Cohen (Wilmington, Del), a pair of Virginia Beach standouts in Meredith Lowrance (Kempsville) and Dana Weaver (Princess Anne), as well as a pair of foreign players: Heidi Arnaudon (Australia) and Elise van Ballegooie, (Netherlands). Many coaches believe that this group will make JMU an immediate 1999 championship contender, though that prediction may have to wait a year or two.

Princeton also brings in off-shore talent for its 1999 season. The biggest talent should be six-footer Ilvy Friebe (Bonn, Germany) who already slated to be a starter at one of the central positions. She will begin the season at center forward, but do not be surprised to see her moved to center halfback or center fullback when the need arises.

The Tigers also got several American talents in its recruiting class. To replace Fruscione, Beth Bozman was able to land goalkeeper Kelly Baril (Peabody, Mass.), who recorded the second-most shutouts in National Federation history.

In addition, the talent pool includes All-American Emily Townsend (Houston, Tex.), consensus New Jersey player of the year Beckie Wood (Shamong, N.J.), Massachusetts all-stater Melissa Skorupski, Pennsy star Rachel Becker (Newtown Square, Pa.) and Washington-area star Naela El-Hinnawy (Rockville, Md.). There is a feeling that this recruiting class will be able to make the Tigers an immediate championship contender.

Conference on the way up: For the last several years, the Ivy League was not the most competitive league. The team which amassed the most talent would win big in league play, then be thankful for the Ivies' one entry into the NCAA Tournament.

Not anymore. Because of Princeton's recent successes, other members of the Ancient Eight have been learning exactly how to attract talent to a non-scholarship school. Here's what we have been able to piece together thus far for the other Ivy schools for 1999:

Brown: All of a sudden, could Brown be a real, honest-to-goodness contender? Check out their young talent, led by junior Tara Mounsey (Concord, N.H.), who has been known to pick up an ice hockey stick once in a while as a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic ice hockey team.

There is also plenty of developing talent on this Bear squad such as scholastic All-America candidate Vanessa Chandis (Mendham, N.J.), as well as the quick junior Susana Garcia (Vernon, N.J.). The incoming freshman class, however, has the considerable talents of scorer Kristen Accordino (Demarest, N.J), Cory Pelletier (Walpole, Mass.), Ashley Wallace (Avon, Conn.), and Katie Spencer (Hatfield, Mass.). This incoming class is probably second to Princeton's in terms of potential inputs in 1999, but may develop to a higher level.

Columbia: In addition to an already young squad, the Lions have added defensive midfielder Dana Zullo (Flemington, N.J.), the electrifying winger Becky Schatzkin (Chevy Chase, Md.), and utility player Mel Mecir (Langhorne, Pa.) to a team which already boasts the talented utility player Antoinette Allen (Mount Holly, N.J.).

Cornell: The team made a couple of huge acquisitions from Philadelphia's powerful Inter-Ac conference. Take, for instance, Kelly O'Donnell, the regional All-American from Bala Cynwyd Episcopal Academy (Pa.). While she is expected to step in on offense, look to fullback Sasha Fritsch to become a defensive force, like she was for Philadelphia Springside (Pa.).

But the player expected to make the largest impact on this team is midfielder Alison Carabetta, who not only was an all-state performer in California, but received the varsity's most-inspirational award at Los Gatos Saratoga (Calif.).

Dartmouth: Added the considerable talents of Lauren Welsh, a 5-foot-11 forward from New Jersey, to a young team. In addition, Jackie Fuld (Greenwich, Conn.), and Carolyn Steele (Clinton, N.Y.) provide support for a team which will be led by sophomore Kim Jenkin (Whitehouse Station, N.J.) and the Scopaz sisters (Lauren and Kristin) out of Pelham, N.Y.

Harvard: The Crimson have landed one of the true genuine natural talents from the Class of 1999 in Katie Scott (Bernards, N.J.), who can be one of the most electrifying players in the league once Harvard's new turf field is christened.

And, don't forget that Harvard was not only 9-9 a year ago, they were this close from being 11-7, thanks to an overtime loss and a loss in strokes to Northeastern.

Pennsylvania: Much will be expected out of this group. Not only is it because there is a former U16 national teamer (Leah Bills) on the team, but the team needs a good year to erase the tarnish off a horrible spring for women's athletics on the campus. A player strike on the part of the women's lacrosse team exposed problems previously unseen in Penn's athletic department.

But if anyone can play the role of healer, Quaker coach Val Cloud can. And she may have the players to do it in this incoming class. Maggie Brier (Doylestown, Pa.) was one of the better players coming out of the Suburban One League in the 1999 recruiting class, and Colleen Connors (Moorestown, N.J.) has an extra year's size, speed, and experience over everybody else. She deferred entrance to Penn in order to spend a year in The Netherlands, soaking in that nation's hockey culture.

Yale: Much was made about the Elis' enormous incoming 1998 recruiting class. It included the likes of Tovia Martirosian (Richmond, Va.), Erin Tennyson (Hightstown, N.J.), and Erica Waples (Milton, Del.). Most of all, however, Yale's 1998 recruiting class should be defined by the team's returning leading scorer, the explosively brilliant Amanda Walton (Chestnut Hill, Mass.).

Team which will have the hardest season: In the past year, the Virginia Cavaliers have had a coaching change and graduation losses at center back and on the forward line.

It will not be easy for new head coach Jessica Wilk to maintain last year's Final Four form, but will certainly have the horses to compete in the ACC. Goalkeeper Becky Worthington (Fairview Village, Pa.) got a lot of work for the U20 national team and the UAFHL's Southern Charm and should have an excellent season. Fullback Jessica Coleman (Oceanport, N.J.) steps into the sweeper spot, and forwards Lorraine Vizzuso (Fairfield, N.J.) and Meredith Elwell (Moorestown, N.J.) shoulc be an artful front line.

The question is, who else is there? Sure, incoming goalie Emily White (Westminster, Md.) has starters' stuff, but will have to wait her turn. Too, there is the question of the team's midfield.

Team which may have an even harder season: Few people knew, when Kent dropped its first-round NCAA contest against Virginia in 1998, that it would be the last time anyone would see NCAA leading scorer Elsbeth Verterre. She and a number of members of the Flashes' foreign contingent left school before the 1999 season, taking their scoring and skills with them.

But four more foreign freshmen are on this year's Kent roster: Lisette Haars, Inge Corten (Netherlands), Megan Spurling (Bermuda), and Helen Jerden (Scotland).