The 1998 field hockey season was certainly impressive for Middlebury College. In fact, it was so impressive that the question on everyone's mind after a 3-2 win over William Smith in the championship game was not what the team could do for an encore.

Instead, Middlebury fans had to be asking, "How did we ever lose that game to Keene State?"

The Panthers were excellent in 1999, and the team's 17-1 record was certainly deserved, however, given the excellence of the senior leadership from Heidi Howard (Syosset, N.Y.), Missy Hopkins (Baltimore, Md.), and goalkeeper Laura Parmelee (West Hartford, Conn.).

But they and a standout group of seniors are now gone, leaving head coach Missy Foote with the age-old problem of getting her team to championship level once again.

And, with the field of Division III schools now at 133 strong, the competition just to qualify for the tournament will be even more challenging. Conference championships will be all the more important in 1999, since each and every conference champion makes the tournament.

It is up to the individual conferences to determine exactly how a conference champion will be determined -- regular-season standings or post-season tournament -- but what can be surmised is this: the fabric of the Division III tournament has changed.

Teams from underrepresented schools and regions will be able to play their way into the tournament rather than hope for an at-large berth from the tournament committee. Kenyon (Ohio), for example, may be able to make the tournament with slightly more ease in a conference championship rather than hoping to be the sole chosen representative from the Great Lakes region as it was in 1998. A team like Regis College (Mass.) may be able to rise from the legion of tiny New England colleges and make a name for itself in the NCAA Tournament.

But until the first "Cinderella" team is able to crack the Division III cartel of established programs -- Middlebury, Messiah, William Smith, Cortland State, Williams, and the New Jersey Lions -- pundits will be hard-pressed to find new heroines in the Division III field.

But there are object lessons for aspiring Cinderellas: the Rowan Profs. The surprise of the 1998 Division III season, Rowan had not only come within a heartbeat of the NCAA finals, it had also done the unthinkable. The Profs had beaten The College of New Jersey for the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) regular season title. It had been the first time in 17 years that a team other than the Lions of Trenton State/The College of New Jersey had won the regular season championship.

But Rowan may find a big surprise in 1999: the realization that they might miss the nine seniors who helped carry the Profs to within a hair of the Final Four. Though sophomore Abby Singley (Marlton, N.J.) is a superstar in the making, it will take huge efforts from seniors MaryKate Madden (Medford, N.J.) and Natalie DeFlece (Florence, N.J.) to enable Rowan to remain at championship form.

Should the Profs falter, The College of New Jersey is more than willing to take up the NJAC cause. These Lions are more than hungry, having not made the Final Four for two consecutive seasons.

For Sharon Pfluger's committed crew, two seasons is a severe dry spell, as Lion teams had never been out of the Final Four for two straight seasons since the institution of the Division III championship.

But an experienced group returns to Hillwood Lakes for the 1999 season, having lost only one senior to graduation. New Jersey has a further advantage: new turf has been installed at Lions Stadium.

The ones who should benefit the most from the new surface are seniors Jami Holtz (Easton, Pa.) and Tiffany Trockenbrod (Brigantine, N.J.) who have had enough lower-leg injuries the past two seasons to fill out a triage list. Another player who should benefit is junior goalkeeper Jackie Conroy (Mount Laurel, N.J.) who had to play every minute of every game a year ago.

Though the team is experienced at its core, much will be expected of incoming freshman Grace Rarich (Pennington, N.J.), whose tackling ability and tenacity were unmatched in the 1999 scholastic recruiting class. Her defensive feats grew to something approaching legendary status in Mercer County, and she decided to attend school a scant seven or eight miles from where she played scholastically.

Another credible threat in Division III is William Smith. The Geneva, N.Y. institution has developed into a perennial contender, having made the NCAA Tournament the last 11 years and winning the 1997 championship.

The Herons will be led by the dynamic senior Ami Ford (Whitney Point, N.Y.) and goalkeeper Rebecca Arminger (Ellicott City, Md.), in their quest to return to the Division III championship game.

There are numerous other contenders in the 133-team lottery that is Division III hockey. Here are some we think are of note:

Cortland State: The NCAA runner-up in 1997 fell to a 12-7 record in 1998, and is hungry to return to prominence.

The University of the South: The southernmost American collegiate program was the second-best team in the Great Lakes region in 1998.

Keene State: Hey, they beat Middlebury last year, right?

Johns Hopkins: Upgrades in some of its women's athletic programs -- especially lacrosse -- are trickling down to the field hockey program.

Williams: If Middlebury falters in NESCAC play, you have to like the Ephs' chances.

Gettysburg: The Bullets made the NCAA Division III tournament with just two seniors.

Bowdoin: Similarly, the Polar Bears had only four seniors off its 1998 ECAC Tournament team.