IN DIVISION III, ROAD TO SPRINGFIELD HAS PLENTY OF OBSTACLES

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

In the eight weeks it will take for the 144 NCAA field hockey teams in Division III to cut down to 18 teams for the tournament, many contenders will rise and wane. Automatic qualifiers will be chosen, at-large teams will be left out.

But you cannot argue with defending champion William Smith. The Herons have been in an astounding four straight championship finals, having won the 1997 NCAA Division III title and lost the 1998 NCAA final before winning the ECAC Mid-Atlantic championship in 1999 and the 2000 NCAA Division III crown on a not-exactly-clear goal.

William Smith returns Nicky Livinsgston (Whitney Point, N.Y.) and Jackie Hall (Newport, R.I.) from a powerful front line. They also return Sheila McKevitt (Clinton, N.Y.), off whose leg the championship-winning goal appeared to deflect.

Another 2000 Final Four participant, Salisbury University is likely to be a big contender for the 2001 title, given the leftover feelings from 2000's Cinderella season. The team not only made the Final Four, it also was the host -- a tremendous home-field advantage.

The Division III field hockey universe could also be seeing the revival of perhaps the single proudest program: The College of New Jersey. The Lions are only a couple of years removed from a 1999 field hockey title, but Sharon Pfluger, the coach of both the field hockey and women's lacrosse teams at the school, has not seen a title since.

"In the last two years, we sort of lost the skeleton of what we had here," she admits. "But the players we have have great potential, and they are working very well."

To say that the Lions are in a slump is a relative term -- a Tiger Woods "slump" is different from anyone else in the game of golf. But given the fact that Pfluger's teams win about 93 percent of the time, going title-less in three straight semesters qualifies as an eyebrow-raiser.

The 2000 season had been one of change for the Lions; the team does not play its four New Jersey Athletic Conference foes twice, just once. The schedule had to be adjusted to add teams like Lebanon Valley and Messiah College -- teams which will have to help the Lions get into the Division III tournament since the NJAC does not have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

"Those games will be very important for us, since they are in our region," Pfluger says.

The Lions have many gifted, young forwards such as Christie Shore (Souderton, Pa.), Jess Hamway (Pompton Lakes, N.J.), Laura Chowansky (Sea Girt, N.J.), Danielle Bechtel (Marlton, N.J.), and Carin Heller (Springfield, Pa.), who will help out veterans Sarah Dunworth (Wilmington, Del.) and Megan McCall (Oaklyn, N.J.) in their push towards the NCAA final.

Another team to keep an eye on is Springfield. After losing the 2000 final on that questionable goal, the Pride have already been awarded the host site for the 2001 and the 2002 Final Fours, and will be looking to earn their way there as one of the four teams; previously, the Division III Final Four was awarded to one of the four participants, meaning that the college and the tournament committee had about four days to prepare for the three games.

The Pride graduated corner striker Abby Perham (Walpole, Mass.), but will still have the services of her sister Lindsay, a sophomore. The dangerous senior attack tandem of Caroline Black (Paget, Bermuda) and Melissa Rogers (Southwick, Mass.) may get head coach Dotty Zenaty her first NCAA title in her 32 years of coaching at Springfield.

The two 2001 ECAC titlists, Montclair (N.J.) and Wesleyan (Mass.) have to be considered contenders for NCAA Tournament qualification, though the latter has a much more difficult row to hoe. The Cardinals, playing in the ultra-competitive New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), have a grinding schedule that includes the usual suspects like Middlebury, Amherst, and Williams.

However, there appears to be a new NESCAC contender: Colby. That's right, Colby. The Mules, having hired head coach Brenda Beckwith away from Winslow (Maine) High School, have already made a huge impact with team defense.

Beckwith, architect of a Winslow defense that allowed no goals during the entire 1999 season, has already seen her team reap the benefits with a season-opening 1-0 win over then-No. 8 Amherst. As the White Mules have their first five games at home, they could be a serious contender against the likes of Middlebury and Williams for the NESCAC automatic bid.

One team that could be a real dark horse (as opposed to a white mule) could be Rensselaer. After setting a school record (11) for wins in a season in 2000, the Engineers won their first three of 2001, including a heart-stopping overtime win against Westfield (Mass.).

But, looming on the horizon at the end of the season, is an October 20 match with William Smith -- a UCAA game that could gauge whether the Big Red have enough to tangle with the best of Division III.

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