Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

The American field hockey cogniscenti have Oct. 20, 2001 circled on their schedules.

It could be because Team USA will be playing South Africa in the last of a four-game domestic Test series, but there is a far more important reason for college fans.

That Saturday, the University of Maryland will be playing North Carolina in an ACC matchup.

It is this game which will likely determine the outcome of the rest of the season.

For these two teams have built immensely talented lineups in 2001, ones which are set to take over the Division I ranks with the graduation of Old Dominion superstar Marina DiGiacomo.

With her and a good senior class graduated from ODU, Maryland and North Carolina will likely face each other without blemishes on their schedules -- though each team will have to play ODU once each before their showdown.

This game will likely influence who gets the top seed in the ACC Tournament, as well as who gets a better draw in the NCAAs, avoiding a motivated 5th through 8th seed on a Sunday afternoon in November.

Maryland will probably need the win more than UNC for motivational purposes, since the ACCs are at Chapel Hill in 2001. And, lest we forget, that regular-season contest falls well within the window of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee's purview of recent games which are analyzed in order to determine who gets seeded where.

Maryland will be led by senior midfielder Rachel Hiskins, who had originally not planned on coming back to College Park after her junior season. However, she was convinced to come back to use her final year of NCAA eligibility.

The Aussie will be joined by German-born Caroline Walter, and the two of them will perhaps help create the best midfield in the country despite losing Carla Tagliente to graduation.

Replacing a good senior class is a freshman class that could be one for the ages. Kristin Harris (Lititz, Pa.), Colleen Barbieri (Centereach, N.Y.) and Emily Boyer (Oak Park, Ill.) have been the centers of attention for scores of college coaches during the recruiting season, and this trio will show why.

But what could really help the Terps this year is a group of redshirts from last year. Courtney Thornton (Annapolis, Md.) was good enough to make "A"-Camp without playing a single college game in 2000. Sara Silvetti (Wapwallopen, Pa.) has plenty of wallop in her stick, and Beth Hafer (Sinking Spring, Pa.) could develop into a force on the attack.

North Carolina also has a number of young athletes supplementing the skills of older veterans. Few are as celebrated as age-group national teamer Carey Fetting-Smith (Lutherville, Md.), who always seems to have been able to play better "in the moment," of which she will have plenty in college starting at the sweeper position.

Midfield Alex Otto comes from the powerful Wilmington Tower Hill (Del.) program, Katy Tran (Grantville, Pa.) joins older sister Amy in the goal cage, along with "A"-Camper Kelsey Keeran (Sunbury, Ohio) and United League star Kerry Falgowski (Landesberg, Pa.).

However, this freshman class is a whole lot different from just about any that head coach Karen Shelton has ever put together. Shelton, who has kept at arm's length from foreign talent in the recent past, will have Dutchwoman Charlotte Plugge on the roster in 2001.

Like Maryland, the Heels have a lot of strength in their redshirts. Goalie Alexis Suarez (St. Louis), Emily O'Hara (Skillman, N.J.), Katy Potter (Emmaus, Pa.), Amber Chambers (Dover, Del.), and Mary Havell (Bethesda, Md.) would make just about any college coach priority list, but will play their first seasons in 2001 after sitting out a season.

The veterans will be able to show this precocious group of youngsters how to get the job done, including Abby Martin and Abbey Woolley.

However, Amy Tran and Carrie Lingo will be missing several weeks of the season playing with Team USA in France, trying to sew up a 2002 World Cup bid.

"Their experience with the national team can only make us better," Shelton says. "We'll have to pull together and play well when they're not here and that will provide additional experience for the players who step in. When Carrie and Amy return from playing at the international level, it will seem to them like we're playing in slow motion."

Naturally, they will be back with the team by Oct. 20.

BEST OF THE REST: Naturally, you cannot begin to talk about field hockey in 2001 without mentioning the rest of the ACC, Old Dominion, and Princeton.

However, it is hard to pick a contender to the Maryland-North Carolina duopoly.

Old Dominion? No Marina. Duke? Young. Wake? Need cohesion.

That leaves Virginia and Princeton, two teams that could very definitely be at the 2001 Final Four at Kent State if things break right.

The Hoos, after losing badly to Maryland in the ACC Tournament in 2000, will get the services of an excellent freshman class, which includes the skilled Emily Beach, the strong fullback Ashleigh Hass, and the explosive speed of Julia Croddick.

Croddick, as a scholastic player, had an excellent working relationship with sophomore forward and former U-16 national teamer Katie Nicholson on National Futures teams. This pair should begin to approach the potential of the front lines that UVa had in the mid-90s.

There will be some shifting in the Cavs' lineup in 2001, as forward Katie Jo Gerfen takes a more defensive role, and center back Jessica Coleman takes over the center-mid position.

Princeton will get a lot of help from a pair of players who, ironically, call the Commonwealth of Virginia home. Alexis and Natalie Martirosian, who went to school in the Richmond area, will roam the confines of 1952 Stadium for four years, and could help shift the balance of power back towards Tiger dominance, rather than some of the close victories that they have had in the past couple of years.

But there are questions about Princeton's depth in 2001. A number of factors have conspired to leave head coach Beth Bozman with no seniors. That has left her the task, for the second time in less than four years, of starting as many as five first-year players.

There will be a lot of playing time for the marketable Martirosians, as well as fullbacks Jen Elliott and Kelly Darling, midfielder Shahrzad Joharifard, and forward Ashley Sennett from the famous unscored-upon 1999 Winslow, Maine field hockey team.

The star of the team, however, will likely be Team USA's Ilvy Friebe. Friebe, whose skills and strike make her a constant threat to score. The age-group national teamer will see a lot of the ball, but won't have Hilary Matson to stretch the defense for her, as she has graduated.

However, if the Tiger attack can earn corners, the Princeton corner attack unit could be the best in the nation. Cory Picketts, Beckie Wood, Kristen Skorupski, Rachael Becker, Darling, and Friebe all have cannon shots.

CONFERENCE TO WATCH: The Big Ten is a group that is getting more competitive by the year. Watch especially for the University of Iowa, whose young players got a lesson in complacency in 2000 and will, thanks to a recruiting class including fullbacks Tammy Leister and Lauren Stiver, point forward Sarah Dawson, and goalkeeper Emily Rinde-Thorsen.

Penn State has been a hard team to figure in the past couple of seasons, but they have the talent necessary to make a serious NCAA title run. Look for Jill Martz, Kiley Kulina, Nora Graber, and Neilye Stoner -- all Pennsylvania prospects -- to work very well together in 2001.

Also, there is major noise coming out of Lansing, Mich., which leads to our ...

DARK HORSE: Michigan State.

The Spartans are for real, folks. After beating Old Dominion and Wake Forest to start its season, the Green and White could make major noise before the 2001 season ends.

Michele Madison has a habit of being able to get her players to achieve when few thought they had a chance, and that was especially true for Bridget Cooper, whose overtime goal gave MSU a 3-2 win over ODU.

Thing is, Madison doesn't have a great recruiting area; there are about only about a dozen field hockey schools in Michigan, and has to work hard to get the likes of Cooper to come up from Winnetka New Trier (Ill.)

Fans of the United League, however, got to see what Madison had when she put Sophie Rosemalen on the Midwest Cyclones roster. Rosemalen, all of 17 years of age, has that European way of seeing the field that has yet to be mastered by the majority of U.S. players.