Breaking into the ranks of the elite in any sport is never an easy task, and it has been a long process for Franklin & Marshall to earn its place as national contender in Division III field hockey.

Four years ago, head coach Melissa Mariano took over a program that had seen three head coaches in four years and not advanced to the NCAA Championship since 1992.

"There hadn't been a lot of continuity," Mariano said. "My first year, we were 6-11, so it was a struggle. My first two years I felt like I did a lot of teaching."

Although it was an uphill battle, Mariano knew what it would take for F&M to reach the next level. As a player at Middlebury, she was a member of the 2003 national runner-up squad, and then served as an assistant coach at William Smith, which advanced to the NCAA tournament in each year of her tenure.

In each of the last two seasons, F&M posted winning records, but qualified for the Centennial Conference Tournament in only 2009 and lost in a first-round game. The Diplomats have made huge strides during the last few years, but have especially improved by leaps and bounds this season.

After not qualifying for the CC tournament with a 5-5 mark last year, 2011 has been a huge shot in the arm for a program. The Diplomats claimed their first league title and hosting rights for the tournament for the first time.

I think there are a lot of athletes that are choosing to play Division III for the academic side of things. A lot of great athletes are coming to Division III.
-- Franklin & Marshall head Melissa Mariano

"Last year, we didn't even make the conference tournament," senior Becky Willert said. "It is a pretty amazing feat to be undefeated and host the tournament."

The Diplomats went unbeaten (10-0) in league play, including a 5-1 victory against perennial conference powerhouse Ursinus, which was ranked No. 2 at the time. It was only F&M's second victory against Ursinus in program history.

"When we were freshmen and played at Ursinus, the score was 10-1," Willert said. "In our senior year to defeat them on their own field was really special. We're so strong, and everyone has contributed equally for our success this year. There have been so many times this year that I've come off the field and been in awe of how consistently everyone has played."

"Each game, I tried to learn from the stronger opponent and what it was that they were doing that we needed to improve," Mariano said. "Those experiences helped me know what I needed to instill in the players to get to that level. That was definitely my goal from the beginning. It's been fun to watch."

The culture has definitely changed since Mariano took the reins of the program in the spring of 2008.

"We had a great freshmen class and they came in from day one and played 110 percent," Willert said. "There was no gap period where people were catching up. [Mariano] was devoting so much of the season to teaching skills and now we have players that are spending their whole summer playing field hockey and getting in shape."

The Diplomats began the season on an 11-game winning streak, and suddenly an unranked team that was picked to finish fifth in their conference was boasting a national ranking as high as No. 4.

"[We've improved] our ability to see the whole picture and not get down if we are behind in a game," Willert said. "We have the confidence now to come back. We've proven that in several games this year. A year or two ago, we may have thought we would lose those games."

While teams like Bowdoin and Salisbury -- winners of seven of the last eight national titles -- still sit at the top of the Division III national rankings, No. 7 Franklin & Marshall believes the gap is closing between the haves and the have-nots. Like F&M, No. 6 Montclair State (17-1) and No. 10 Catholic (13-1) are programs on the rise. Montclair State has participated in just two NCAA tournaments with the last coming in 2005, while Catholic is looking for its first postseason berth after coming off an upset of previously unbeaten Salisbury.

"There is not such a top and bottom anymore," Mariano said. "I think there are more competitive teams -- it is not so stratified. Even our conference race was down to the wire. You're seeing less and less of the undefeated, whereas a few years ago quite a few teams were going undefeated. I think there are a lot of athletes that are choosing to play Division III for the academic side of things. A lot of great athletes are coming to Division III."

"I think sometimes people underestimate Division III -- there are so many talented girls," Willert said. "There used to be just a few teams getting all the talented players, now it is more equally distributed. You have teams that are underdogs making their way up, and it produces really good competition. I think it is going to make conference championships and NCAAs really interesting this year because it can be anyone's game."