Aug. 24, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum
NCAA.com

Last year in these pages, we chronicled the nationwide assault on the ACC – writing about how the other conferences in Division I Field Hockey were close to catching up with the ACC, for years the unchallenged top conference in the nation.

The shots at the ACC’s façade came from all corners. And they came early. On just the third day of the season, Iowa dropped defending champs North Carolina, 3-2, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Two weeks later, a Syracuse team that exploded to the best season in its history took down Maryland. Losses followed. No. 1 spots fell.

Then came November.

And after all the jostling and gained-to-be-lost ground, five teams in the 16-team Tournament came from the conference. Skip ahead to Nov. 23. After four teams advanced to the national quarterfinals, two more made their way past the national semis, setting up a national championship showdown between Maryland and Wake Forest, possessors of six of the last seven national championships – a game Maryland ended up winning, 4-2.

But as recruiting classes and coaching searches dilute the usual power centers and spread the future of field hockey to far-off locales, 2009 could signal a continuation of the process that only picked up momentum last year.

“We’ve got to find teams that can continue to challenge the strength of the ACC,” said UConn coach Nancy Stevens. “That starts with recruiting. We feel very good about our recruiting class, and other teams do as well, and that’s the only answer, isn’t it? If you can recruit top players and then you’ll be able to play for national championships.”

American
American field hockey has stood far atop the Patriot League standings for the past six years. Out in ’09 for their seventh straight conference championship, the Eagles carry a 43-game conference win streak into the season. But the problem for American lately has not been conference play. It’s been everything outside of it, a problem further aggravated by the Eagles’ 7-1 loss to Wake Forest in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament last year after a season that had coach Steve Jennings thinking mid-November.

After that loss, Jennings – who became the first American to earn the title of FIH Coach-High Performance last year – seethed. This year, he’ll be putting his talents to use with a team that bears little resemblance to the one that took the field last year, with 10 seniors having moved on. But the Eagles have made a habit of filling holes quickly, and this core looks to be able do to just that. Look to Christine Fingerhuth, last year’s Patriot League tourney MVP, to fill in for departed scorer Irene Schickhart, with goalie Alyssa Poorman anchoring a defense also featuring the duo of Anne-Meike De Wiljes and Anne Van Erp.

Connecticut
Last year, Big East voters picked Connecticut to jog to a conference championship. Then a little thing called Syracuse happened, jarring the Huskies from the favorite position and into the mix of a conference growing thicker with talent every year. They’ve lost some central figures from last year, including first-team All-American back Jen Kleinhans and top scorers Lauren Aird and Lindsay Leck, but they’re also bringing back a cluster of Huskies with experience that reaches back to UConn’s national semifinal trip in 2007 and beyond.

In net for her final year is Andrea Mainiero, last year’s starter in goal and the final wave of a defense that allowed a nation’s fifth-best 1.08 goals a game last year. Then there’s the trio of field players picking up international experience this summer. First, there was Cara Silverman, who picked up five goals and six assists in the U.S. team’s silver medal-winning showing at the Maccabi Games. Then, there’s Melissa Gonzalez and Rayell Heistand, both of whom earned places on the U.S. Junior World Cup team, pacing a roster of Huskies that promises to see itself in a sprint with Syracuse for the conference title this year.

Iowa
The Hawkeyes surged to the best season in Iowa history last year, dicing through their opposition from the moment they set foot on the field in 2008. After that win over North Carolina Aug. 31, Iowa shot through its schedule to earn its third straight Big Ten title and a trip to the national semifinals, where it lost to Maryland, 2-1, in two overtimes.

It did so with one of the nation’s most balanced attacks, finishing ninth in scoring average and 11th in goals-against. And it did so with three of the nation’s best players, in the form of first-team All-Americans Caroline Blaum and Lauren Pfeiffer and second-teamer Roz Ellis – all three of whom graduated last spring. As it is, the Hawkeyes will be led by a core of three talented seniors – Jess Werley, Meghan Beamesderfer and Tricia Dean – who work from midfield but can play anywhere. For the Hawkeyes to make it four straight conference titles in a row, the trio will need to lead. And with the year opening with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, they’ll have a shot to prove that Iowa’s here to stay from the start. 

James Madison
JMU’s coming off the winningest season in program history, after the Dukes rattled off an 18-3 season that ended in the first round of the Tournament. Luckily for the Dukes, the most oppressive defensive regime in the country returns its central source of frustration, with goalie Kelsey Cutchins back for her final year in net after three of the finest in NCAA history. As the backbone of a defensive unit that led the nation in goals-against average (0.75), Cutchins, a first-team All-American in 2008, led the nation with a 0.72 goals-against average and .824 save percentage. She holds a 0.96 GAA for her career, tops in JMU history.

But JMU’s weakness in 2008 might grow more daunting this season, with three of the Dukes’ top scorer lost to graduation. Fourth- and fifth-leading scorers Meghan Bain and Dolores de Rooij return, but the Dukes will need to find scoring fast if they want to stay afloat in the ever-improving CAA.

Maryland
The defending champs picked up their third national championship in four years in 2008, and with it, bade goodbye to the most successful senior class in Terrapins field hockey history. Topping the list of departures is Susie Rowe, whose team-high 74 points keyed the Terps’ title run in ’08 and the last of whose points turned out to be the game-winning goal in the national championship game. Along with Rowe went four other seniors, with the quintet accounting for 139 of Maryland’s 316 points – just under 44 percent of the nation’s second-best offense last year, at 4.70 goals a game.

But in their place slides an underclass that featured two of Maryland’s top three scorers last year, including first-team All-American Katie O’Donnell and her team-leading 26 assists (to go along with her 21 goals for 68 total points) and Nicole Muracco and her 25 goals. On the defensive side, third-team all-Americans Brianna Davies (MF/back) and Alicia Grater (GK) are back, anchoring a defensive corps that lost three seniors to graduation.

All in all, this Maryland team might just have more experience – and more potential – than last year’s group. Which, in an ACC that never takes a step backwards, means they could be very, very good.

North Carolina
The 2007 champs took a step back last year – admittedly, it would have been tough to take a step forward after an undefeated season in ’07. It wasn’t a big step back, but when you’re the lone ACC team in the Tournament to drop out in the first round a year after taking home the crown, shockwaves ensue. That’s meant an offseason of renewed focus, a recruiting class as good as any and a team ready to recapture the brilliance of two years ago.

Preseason starts with four UNC players working with the U.S. Junior World Cup Team, the most of any college program. That means that Elizabeth Drazdowski, Katelyn Falgowski, Jackie Kintzer and Kelsey Kolojejchick won’t join up with the team until two weeks into practice – which might be a problem, if the quartet weren’t competing against the top class of competition in the world.

Princeton
Five schools placed at least two players on the U.S. Junior World Cup team this summer: Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and, finally, Princeton. The Tigers come into 2009 after a season that saw them shoot into the second round of the Tournament, only to fall to Syracuse, 3-2, in OT in the second round. Both of Princeton’s top scorers from last year, Katie Reinprecht and Kat Sharkey, are back for more this year. They’ll be up against a tough Ivy schedule, but the highlight of the chart for the Tigers is the three-game stretch of Connecticut, Maryland and American from Oct. 4-11. If they can win two of three in that time, consider this team a contender to make its way to Winston-Salem.

Stanford/California
We pulled the same move last year, but the ascent of both of these clubs in the Northern Pacific Conference is indicative of the state of modern field hockey. Both made charges into the top 20 last year, and both found that they can compete with the rest of the country. Now, more successful in convincing West Coast high schoolers to stick around the Golden State instead of rushing to the East, the Cardinal and Golden Bears look to take another step toward securing their places as forces in field hockey. They’ll be taking part in a redesigned NorPac this year, with eight teams spread across two divisions: East and West, with both divisions playing double-round robin schedule means they’ll be seeing a lot of each other.  

Syracuse
The 2008 version of the Orange seemed almost supernatural, materializing as they did out of the unthawed, rust-drenched air of Upstate New York to flatten their opposition after seven years obscurity. They set team records – lots of them - finishing last year with 116 goals and the top scoring offense in the country. The previous Syracuse record for goals was 59.

More importantly, the Orange became the first-ever Syracuse field hockey team to take the No. 1 spot, advancing to the national semifinals for the first time in team history, before finally losing to Wake Forest in overtime.

And this year’s team will only be missing four players from last year. Granted, two of those are Shannon Taylor, who led the team in scoring with 79 points on 31 goals and 17 assists, and Heather Hess, the Orange’s starting goalie. But the bulk of the team is back, including the team’s second-leading scorer (and leader in assists) Martina Loncarica and second-leading goal-scorer Lindsey Conrad. They’ll all be playing under third-year coach Ange Bradley, who’s bent on placing her team in the national championship game every year – a goal that, this year, seems like a feasible one.

Wake Forest
Wake’s season ended on the frigid pitch at Louisville last year, as one of only two teams playing on the final day of the season. This time, if the Demon Deacons reach the final, they’ll be playing on their home turf. If the team that dominated the first part of this decade needed any extra incentive to win its first national title since Wake Forest burned through three straight from 2002-04, hosting the national semifinals and finals in Winston-Salem can’t hurt.

This year, the Deacons will be without the services of first-team All-American Michelle Kasold, who moved on to the U.S. National Team after graduating in the spring. But the majority of the offense that ranked fifth in scoring average last year is back, with first-team All-American Raisa Schiller now a senior leading the charge at midfield/forward. Joining her up front is fellow senior Hilary Moore, second in the team last year in points, behind Kasold. Two more 10-goal scorers

But to find itself on the field in Winston-Salem in late November instead of watching from dorm rooms, the Deacons need to address the defensive holes that left them 30th in the country in goals-against average last year. If a defensive corps led by third-team All-American MF/back Aileen Davis can do that, expect a return to the promised land – by staying home – for the Deacons in ’09.