AL’S FEARLESS 5IVE:
This year, I believe the world of NCAA Division I field hockey will rotate on one axis: Route 15/501. That’s the highway colloquially known as “Tobacco Road,” which connects Durham and Chapel Hill in North Carolina.
North Carolina, which has made five out of the last seven NCAA Division I title matches, has all of the tools to make another run at a national title. Gab Major and Malin Evert have done good work on the forward line, and leading National Federation goal-scorer Austyn Cuneo, who was fighting injury a year ago, should be healthy this go-round. I think one interesting player on the roster is going to be freshman Catherine Hayden, an American who played her junior and senior seasons at The King’s School in Canterbury, England.
At the other end of Tobacco Road is Duke University, which has an enormous collection of young and skilled talent coming in. Start with U.S. youth national team member Margaux Paolino, whose elimination skills are awesome to watch. Also, there’s Haley Schleicher, she of the 200 goals and 201 assists as a prep player. They will mesh with the likes of Heather Morris (11 goals, four assists) and Ashley Kristen (7-9).
Syracuse, the current NCAA title-holders, may wind up this year as being only the third best team in its own league. But that’s the nature of the tough competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Orangewomen graduate Team USA’s Alyssa Manley and Jess Jecko, but retain third-leading scorer Roos Weers (14-9).
Syracuse’s old Big East rival, Connecticut, is a team which I think will be heard from before the year is out. Charlotte Veitner (39-21) returns for the Huskies, as well as Casey Umstead (18-7). Defensive midfieler Anna Mittendorf (11-6) is also back. Don’t be surprised to see UConn lay in the weeds during the regular season before making a statement late in the season; I think the Huskies’ Oct. 23rd road match at Maryland will tell the tale of their season.
Penn State is a team to watch this season, because of its immense potential. Youth national team members dot the roster, and it’s enough to make one wonder if this is the year for the team to make a serious run at the national championship, one year after finishing 9-10 on the season. It was a season notable for eight one-goal losses, half of them in overtime.
Moira Putsch, the transfer from Maryland, sat out an entire season because of injury and will be anxious to jump onto the field and prove herself. Brooke Birosik (11-3) and Aurelia Meijer (6-7), the Nittany Lions’ two leading scorers last year, return, but I think the real value of this team is in its midfield. Freshman age-group national teamer Madison Morano joins a group of midfielders including Carly Celkos, Gini Bramley, Cassie Kline, and Katie Dembrowski. If this group jells together, they can perhaps tilt the field in their direction.