Nov. 20, 2009

By Roger van der Horst
Special to

It's the combination of athletics and academics.

It's the warm, Southern climate in which most of the campuses bask.

It's the strong coaching.

It's the experience of beating each other up on the field.

All of the above may help explain why the Atlantic Coast Conference, for the time being, is the nation's dominant Division I collegiate conference in field hockey, the coaches of the teams that advanced to the national semifinals say. With Maryland (23-0) and North Carolina (19-2) set to meet in the championship game Sunday at noon at Wake Forest's Kentner Stadium, an ACC team will take home the title for the eighth straight year.

Michigan, in 2001, was the last non-ACC champion.

"The quality of our institutions. We have great academic institutions," UNC coach Karen Shelton said when asked why the ACC seems to own the sport.

The geography also appeals to all of those field-hockey families in Pennsylvania, Delaware and elsewhere in Northeast, Shelton said.

"The weather helps, the fact that we're close to home but not too close to home, as opposed to the Big Ten, where you have to get on an airplane, you have to fly, you can't really drive it," Shelton said.

The ACC's three final four teams certainly have a few built-in advantages over the fourth, Princeton from the Ivy League. Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia all use the equivalent of the maximum 12 full scholarships, spreading the aid among their players. The Ivy League schools don't offer scholarships and impose greater restrictions on practice time and tournaments.

"It just means that when we do get together, what we do has to be really high-tempo and quality," Princeton coach Kristen Holmes-Winn said of the Tigers' practice sessions. Her team's final four appearance means "you can do it and still be in the Ivy League," she added. Princeton lost to Maryland , 7-5, in the first semifinal on Friday.

As for why the ACC is so strong, Holmes-Winn pointed to the importance of leadership, both among coaches like Shelton and Maryland's Missy Meharg, as well as their administrations.

"Great coaching, great leaders at all of those schools, great facilities, great programs," Holmes-Winn said. "I think all of the hockey programs at those schools receive a ton of support from their administrations.

Michele Madison, who came to Virginia from Michigan State, said ACC teams can't help but get better by playing against each other so often.

"The teams make each other better, because we play this level the whole month of October ... and then we play the ACC Tournament that's as competitive," Madison said. "You're forced to grow. You're forced to get better.

"I hope we made North Carolina better today," she added with a wry chuckle after UNC eliminated her team 3-2.

Carolina's Shelton doesn't see the ACC's dominance as an entirely positive influence on collegiate field hockey.

"We'd love to see it grow, but in these hard economic times, there are not many sports being added," Shelton said. "So, we're basically a regional sport … even though we have some programs on the West Coast, we have Iowa and Michigan in the Midwest.

"And I DO think it's not healthy for the ACC to be so dominant. I'd love to see some other teams come on. That's why it's good to see Princeton in this final four. Syracuse. Louisville has got a good program. I think things will cycle back. I really believe it. The ACC is hot right now, and I think it's attractive to a lot of kids. "

Besides, she said Friday, the competitive advantage may not be as great as it looks on paper.

"I don't think it's that big. I don't think we're all that."