By Al Mattei


Given the dominance of just two schools amongst the tiny 25-team sorority that is Division II field hockey, it could be easy to perceive that the departure of Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac into Division I would lead to the level of play sinking faster than an ant tied to a bowling ball dropped into the ocean.

There are a couple of new wrinkles, however, that could make Division II play a delicious feast for hockey pundits this season -- none more so than the two teams that have joined NCAA Division II. Bryant (R.I.) and Houghton (N.Y.) will be joining the Division II ranks.

Of the two, the case of Houghton College, the small liberal-arts Christian college located in western New York, is most interesting. The Highlanders, until receiving provisional Division II status in August 1999, was the only school from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) playing field hockey. As such, it was one of the few that featured Canadian colleges on its schedule.

Houghton College is an immediate Division II championship contender by virtue of having beaten both of the twin pillars of D-2 hockey -- Lock Haven and Bloomsburg -- in recent seasons. It has done so with players from some of the best field hockey locations in the country: Lititz, Lancaster, and Ephrata, Pa.; Westchester County, N.Y., Mount Laurel, N.J., and Newark, Del.

The Highlanders will be led by winger Judy Johnson (Willow Street, Pa.), who had 15 goals a year ago. Look also for greatness from an outstanding freshman clas. Rochelle Hershey (Ephrata, Pa.) somehow slipped through the Division I recruiting dragnet and may wind up having the greatest impact on one team of any freshman in the nation. Look also to Lisa Pepper (Dividing Creek, N.J.), who was one of only a handful of Futures players to attend a team playing in one of the Christian leagues.

If that isn't enough to make Houghton a contender, there is a foreign influence. Freshman goalkeeper Amy Peterson (St. George, Ontario) was one of the province's best prospects.

Houghton's arrival comes just in time to experience the other new wrinkle in Division II -- the emphasis on divisional play and conference champions in the NCAA tournament. As a result, many schools have had to make decisions about what conferences to play in, and whether that makes them eligible for a different NCAA tournament in which they were hoping to play. Some conferences in New York and in the South have had teams from more than one division.

Despite all of the division-hopping that Division II teams do over the course of a season, there have been two teams which have been as reliable as a Volvo the past half-dozen years when it comes to making the Division II championship game: Bloomsburg and Lock Haven.

This could make for interesting doings in 1999. Since the lords of NCAA field hockey have been asked to ensure that automatic bids are floated to conference champions, it is entirely possible that the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) championship game will send just one of its participants -- the winner -- to the NCAA Division II championship game.

If a PSAC tournament is meant to yield just one team in 1999, it may turn out to be as gut-wrenching and dramatic as the ACC championship is in Division I. The reason is that the power in Division II field hockey is located in this conference -- namely, Lock Haven and Bloomsburg.

Both teams have the talent worthy of Division II supremacy. Bloomsburg returns 18-goal scorer Bridget Heckman (Ephrata, Pa.) for her senior season, as well as junior attackers Corinne Berger (Hamburg, Pa.) and Krista Engle (Liverpool, Pa.), who had nine goals each in 1998.

Look also to a quartet of sophomores to help round out the Huskies' lineup. Forwards Marlea Partlon (Langhorne, Pa.) and Heather Weikel (Middleburg, Pa.), along with midfielder Leah Conte (Ambler, Pa.) and fullback Cheri Forry (Lancaster, Pa.) made significant contributions in games played and/or scoring in 1999,

Up the road at Lock Haven, the good news is that leading goal-scorers Shanna Vitale (Hopewell Junction, N.Y.) and Becky Hinton (York, Pa.) are back for their senior seasons. The bad news is that all-everything defender and leading assister Cheri Drysdale (Chester, N.J.) and second leading assister Ann Smith (Eden, N.Y.) have graduated out of the backfield.

Much of the defensive pressure now falls on sophomore goalkeeper Tara Beach (Greene, N.Y.) who snared the starting job and played 22 games in 1998. She was most impressive, recording a 91.1 save percentage and gave up a goal every two games.

If Lock Haven or Bloomsburg falter there are some other Division II contenders. One is in a most interesting position this season, as it is another school located in the state of Pennsylvania. It is, however, a member of the New York Colleges Athletic Conference.

The school's name is Philadelphia University, but you might remember it by its old name: Philadelphia Textile.

The team this year has talent in the right places, and from the right schools. Scan the roster and you see programs like Palmyra (Pa.), Flemington Hunterdon Central (N.J.), and Collingswood (N.J.), all of whom are perennial scholastic championship contenders.

Amongst the talent on this team is Tara Sherwin (Flemington, N.J.) who might be the finest all-around athlete in Division II. There is considerable presence in the defensive backfield, as Molly Cobb (Ewing, N.J.) stands out at six feet tall.

Also on this team is Elizabeth Light (Gloucester, N.J.), whose younger sister Molly was chosen to the New Jersey All-State team in 1998.

But the player who could make Philadelphia University's season is incoming freshman Heather McGaurn (Collingswood, N.J.), who was one of the fastest, peskiest, and most dangerous forwards South Jersey had ever seen.