By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

With scholastic field hockey teams in 24 states and the District of Columbia, there are nearly that many ways of choosing a champion. Some of the tournaments to determine that champion or champions, however, are more competitive than others.

For instance, Pennsylvania's Class AAA field has a field of 16 high-caliber teams which have had to earn their way into the tournament through a tough district qualifying system. However, at least 12 of the spots are reserved for only three of the districts, which makes some of the district games more intense than the state tournament.

In Maryland, qualifying teams are randomly seeded as to opponent and to location, similar to England's FA Cup. This means that not only can a lowly-rated team host a high-ranked team on a hostile field, but two undefeated teams could play each other in the first round, making the rest of the tournament an afterthought.

This kind of thing does not happen in New Jersey's Group II championship, which has historically been one of the toughest state tournaments in the country. Group II schools constitute the second-smallest schools in the state, and they have constituted a Murderer's Row of sorts in field hockey.

For the 2000 tournament, a participant in the Central Jersey Group II section might have to meet the following: Allentown, the 1997 champion; Moorestown, the 12-time state champ; and West Long Branch Shore Regional, winners in Group I for much of the latter half of the 1990s.

If a team was fortunate enough to escape that minefield, there was the likes of Collingswood or Haddonfield Memorial in the South section, then any one of several great North Jersey teams like Glen Gardner Voorhees or North Caldwell West Essex.

There were a number of upsets in the tournament, especially in the South-Central half of the bracket. The Central Jersey final saw Shore travel to Moorestown -- which had perhaps the most talented team in the state coming into the season -- and come away with a 1-0 win. Then, Shore met a lowly regarded Collingswood team and lost.

In the north, both Voorhees and West Essex came though their sections, and met in a state semifinal match that went to penalty strokes. Voorhees would come through to the state final against Collingswood.

The matchup was the closest of the four New Jersey state championship games contested in 2000. It would take a Collingswood penalty stroke in the second overtime to overcome Voorhees, 2-1.

"The thing is, you never know. If our enrollment goes up a few, we could wind up in Group III, and if our enrollment goes down, we could be in Group I," said Voorhees head coach Ann Bonavita. "There's just great hockey out there."

"When you look at the bracket, you have in Central Jersey, the likes of (Glen Gardner) Voorhees and Allentown and Manasquan and St. John Vianney: it's hell just to get out of Central Jersey," says Red Bank Catholic head coach Lisa Caprioni. "And if you make it out, you have to play a Moorestown or a Hammonton. And West Essex is usually waiting in the wings in the final."

There are many characters in the Group II minefield. North Caldwell West Essex has the titles, Pennington Hopewell Valley Central the tradition. Moorestown has both. Voorhees has its own titles: the last two Hunterdon-Warren championship. The same goes for Manasquan, the 1998 Shore Conference Tournament winner.

However, to understand exactly why Group II may be the toughest tournament in the country, consider what has happened to the 1997 co-champions, Allentown and West Essex, the teams who played a game which has been considered the greatest ever played in state championship history.

Allentown, after going winless in its first three 1998 contests, was on a hot streak thereafter, scoring aplenty and making its way to the Shore Conference Tournament championship game for the second straight season. However, the Redbirds not only lost to Manasquan (another Group II team), in the SCT final, they lost in penalty strokes to Red Bank Catholic in the state tournament.

"They just happened to put one more stroke in than we did," said Allentown head coach Mary Ellen Clemencich. "That was a really tough bracket, because every team was a powerhouse.''

West Essex, for its part, has breezed through its 1998 season except for an inexplicable 1-0 loss to West Morris Mendham. This program had made it to the state championship game every year since 1991, and was expecting yet another trip to Lions Stadium for the Group II final. West Essex breezed through the Group II North 2 sectional, only to lose a 1-0 decision to Pompton Lakes, the Group II North 1 sectional champion.

"Group II, especially Group II Central, was insane when it came to the talent level," said West Essex coach Jill Cosse. "We really thought that it would be the team that came out of the Central that would have the best chance to win."

However, it turned out that the Group II South winner, Moorestown, was the team to take the title in 1998. The Quakers scored in the eighth minute of extra time, then held on for the 1-0 win over Pompton Lakes.

"It was a good game, but I would have liked to have been in it," Clemencich said. "After all, if you're going to be a state championship, you're going to have to play the best."

"Group II has been the hardest tournament as long as I can remember," said Barb Skiba, head coach at Hopewell Valley for the last quarter-century. "Moorestown and Voorhees have been in our bracket every year, and that has made it very tough."

Besides the mainstays of the Group II tournament, fluctuations in enrollment have allowed teams like West Essex and West Long Branch Shore Regional to move in and out of the group, which can further extend the degree of difficulty. West Essex, having won several Group III titles this decade, is now a Group II school. Shore Regional, having won a number of Group I titles, was in Group II in 2000.

"You have a lot of hockey schools that just happen to be this size," said Collingswood head coach Sandy Ritter. "It's great competition."

But perhaps the greatest legacy of the Group II experience is that players from teams who have competed in the Group II Tournament have filled slots in many of America's top field hockey programs.

Great players such as Voorhees' Andschana Mendes and Shore's Jessica Pizzulli (Rutgers), Allentown's Tiffany Fodera (Iowa), Hopewell Valley's Mandy Pietrowicz (Richmond), and Moorestown's Jen Dickson (The College of New Jersey) have come out of the Group II wars. And in one of the most remarkable footnotes in college field hockey, virtually the entire front line of Top 10 powerhouse Virginia consisted of athletes from New Jersey schools now in Group II -- West Essex's Michelle and Lorraine Vizzuso, along with Moorestown's Meredith Elwell.