College season preview

Aug. 23, 2011, 4:35 p.m. (ET)

The fall college semester, for most, is highlighted with crisp autumn air, homecoming football games, and new textbooks. It all starts in September, right? Wrong.

Little do you know, a few of your classmates have been on campus since the gruelingly, sticky heat of August. These young women have spent countless hours training and preparing for the field hockey season to ensue. So what is the cut short summer, awful racerback tan, sore hamstrings and blistered feet all for? It’s for a chance at the 2011 NCAA National Championship. The schedules are made, the coaches are hired and the teams are set, but the outcome remains unwritten and the title remains unclaimed. Who will it be?

Let us start at the top with the Terrapins. With the 2010 Dita National Coach of the Year, Missy Meharg, at the helm, the Maryland squad returns, after claiming last year’s NCAA Division I National Championship. Obviously, the loss of 2010 Sportswoman of the Year, four-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year, and USA National Team striker, Katie O’Donnell, will be tough. And even with a talented returning 2011 team including, the Terps will have to find away to fend off some fierce competition.

Right on the heels of Maryland are in fact the Tar Heels from the University of North Carolina. Karen Shelton brings back an experienced group who will undoubtedly look to take the 2011 Title after a runner-up finish in College Park last year. Shelton boasts nine returning starters, but will need to fill the goal cage that USA National Team member, Jackie Kintzer left empty. Not to mention, the vacancy left by USA National Team member, Katelyn Falgowski, who has postponed her final season while competing for the States.

One could compare the dominance of Maryland and North Carolina as a ground hog day effect. However, the sheer talent that resides in the following two teams cannot go overlooked. Princeton University and the University of Virginia are surely ready to break the ‘Terp and Tar Heel’ cycle. 

Combined, Virginia and Princeton have six active USA National Team members enrolled in their institutions. Princeton hones four, the most of any current collegiate team, and was also the only team to defeat Maryland in 2010. Most reading those stats would assume 2011 would be Princeton’s year. But the Tigers will have to dig a little deeper as all four athletes will miss the 2011 season while training for a chance at the 2012 London Olympic Games. Virginia will also miss two of its key players, but will still look to pick up some wins within the heartbreakingly tough ACC conference. Michelle Madison enters her sixth season with the Cavaliers, who spent nine of ten weeks at the number three spot last year.

Those four schools have surely risen to an elite group. If you compared it to a night club, those teams are in VIP. Well watch out ladies, because this next group of teams has the potential to crash your party. There is no denying the Buckeyes, the Wolverines, the Orange or the Huskies, who each return an intimidating roster in 2011.

The Ohio State Buckeyes will attempt to improve on last year’s Final Four appearance with the direction of 2010 West Coach of the Year, Anne Wilkinson. After a solid spring showing (outscoring their opponents 18-2), the star studded cast will return to Columbus, Ohio with more experience and zest. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If you know Big Ten college football, then you know about the passionate, at times crazy, rivalry that transpires between the Buckeyes and the following team. The neighbors to the north in Ann Arbor, Michigan will also be field hockey strong contenders for the 2011 season. The University of Michigan, who ousted Ohio State to capture the 2010 Big Ten Championship, will have to battle back from the loss of a strong senior class. However, Marcia Pankratz, who led the Wolverines to the 2001 National Championship, and her group will likely be capable of doing some serious damage.

Now, let’s look atop of the Big East Conference. Here we see a close battle between Connecticut and Syracuse. Both teams have seen great success within the conference, but have yet to claim the big trophy in recent years. In fact, when UConn won NCAA’s in 1985, no one on the current roster was even alive! The Huskies lose graduated senior and USA National Team member, Melissa Gonzalez, but still brings back a skilled group. Similarly, the Orange will prepare for battle with returning experience. The two teams will meet in Storrs this year in an always exciting match.

Now we’ll take a glimpse at some other talented teams who will also look to make a serious run for the 2011 National Championship. First up the Nittany Lions of Penn State, who will bring back many key returners and a strong incoming class this year.

At Wake Forest, Jen Averill’s squad hopefully can continue the notable play seen at last year’s ACC Tournament. Head coach Steve Jennings, will attempt to maintain the dominance of the Patriot League contesting for American’s ninth straight conference title. Old Dominion will be one to watch as every single one of their non-conference matches include top twenty schools. The strength in schedule and talented competition will boost RPI and optimistically prepare them for a long run in the post season.

Boston College enters 2011 with a stellar recruiting class by Ainslee Lamb, including two high school All-American honorees. More solid recruiting by the 2010 Northeast Coach of the Year, Justine Sowry, will help as she begins her reign at the University of Louisville. The loss of seven strong seniors will be a challenge, but the Cardinals are hopeful to be playing at home, as they host the 2011 Division I National Championship finals.

Another coaching change will have Helen Knull taking the reins at Michigan State. The 2011 Spartans feature a young, but determined squad looking to make some noise. The grueling competition of the ACC has had its ways with Duke, but new head coach Pam Bustin will hope to put the Blue Devils back on the map. Another one to watch is Stanford, who will look to improve on their 2010 first round NCAA appearance.

Danger.

That’s the best word to describe this next group. They are “the come from behind, hungry for more, nothing to lose, upset queens”. Some of these teams have climbed their way from obscurity and others have a slipped from the top, but regardless of they got here, beware: Albany, Boston University, Drexel, Kent State, Massachusetts, New Hampshire.

Finally, we will highlight the ‘Fallen Heroes’. Many have asked, “Where did they go?” It’s teams like Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, James Madison, Miami and Northwestern who have experienced a steep drop in the last few years and will no doubt look to 2011 as a chance to rise again. At Northwestern, head coach Tracey Fuchs hopes to continue the Wildcat’s climb back into rankings. While new coaches at Delaware, Rolf van de Kerkhof, and Miami, Inako Puzo, will attempt to restore glory to their respective programs.

The battle for the Division I National Championship will hopefully be an interesting one as teams ride the regular season rollercoaster and look to November for a chance at history.

Bloomsburg. Bloomsburg. Bloomsburg.

The hope of other Division II teams will be to follow in the steps of 2010 Division II National Champions, U-Mass Lowell and put the Bloomsburg supremacy to rest. Of the past nine years, seven of those championships were claimed by the Bloomsburg Huskies. Shannon Hlebichuk’s U-Mass Lowell team, after losing in the title game for the past three years, went a perfect 24-0 last year. Watch out for their high octane offense, which averaged 4.9 goals a game, to help the River Hawks to repeat success. Naturally, the former champs at Bloomsburg, coached by Nicole Rhoads, will clearly hope to continue their high level play and reclaim the spot at the top.

Another to watch for is Shippensburg. Head coach Bertie Landes will welcome back four first team All-Americans and combined with twelve incoming freshman, the Raiders should have chance to repeat with an undefeated regular season and vie for the Championship. Finally, head coach Sandy Miller’s East Stroudsburg squad will have to step up to the challenge with the loss of ten seniors.

The dominance in the Division III realm exists, between Bowdoin and Salisbury. 2010 Division III Coach of the Year, Nikki Pearson, and her Bowdoin Polar Bears will return as defending NCAA Champions. The loss of six seniors will be an obstacle, leaving the race for the title up for grabs.

Former Old Dominion standout, Janelle Benner, was announced as Ursinus’s head coach for the 2011 season and hit the recruiting trail immediately in an attempt to bring home the first title since 2006.

Messiah is looking to finally get married. They have played the role of bridesmaid an unprecedented nine times. That means nine Division III NCAA runner-up finishes, including the 2010 match ending in penalty strokes. The young, but resilient squad will look forward to breaking the streak and finally making it to the altar.

Other teams to note are Middlebury who brings back a young team after graduating only three seniors and Salisbury, a traditional powerhouse, which will attempt to get back to their winning post season play.

This field hockey season will be an interesting one. It will be fascinating to observe how the numerous first year coaches adjust to their new schools and conferences. Also, we will look to see how the loss of players and assistant coaches, as the USA National Team prepares for a hopeful London qualification, effects NCAA outcomes. But regardless of all the variables, it’s still anyone’s game on any given day. Many will try, but that primal joy of hearing the final whistle blow, jumping into the arms of your teammates and knowing you are a National Champion will be reserved for one. Nothing is impossible.

Good Luck!