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UConn out to challenge ACC dominance

9/1/2011

STORRS, Conn. -- A week ago on UConn's campus, bustling with students moving in for a new school year, you wouldn't have known from the sunny skies that Hurricane Irene was on the way. It was a pleasant afternoon to be out watching the Huskies' field hockey team show how quickly it's already gotten in gear.

But UConn really has to be on top of its game to keep up with the sport's "royalty:" the powerhouse programs of the ACC.

"We have eight seniors, and six of them are starting. So we do have the potential to have a special year," said UConn coach Nancy Stevens, whose team started the season with two victories and faces Penn State Sunday. "We always have to compete against the ACC for dominance. They've gotten the better of it lately. That has been our biggest challenge: that conference."

Indeed, the ACC is the Goliath of the sport. The last nine national champions have come from that league, and 14 of the last 18. The top-three-ranked teams in the 2011 preseason NFHCA poll -- defending NCAA champ Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia -- are from the ACC.

Coming in at No. 4 is UConn, which has won two NCAA titles … but both were a long time ago. The Huskies were the champions the first year the NCAA oversaw women's athletics, 1981. Then UConn won it all again in '85.

At that time, Stevens was coaching at Northwestern, where she spent nine seasons. In 1990, she took over at UConn. There, she's won 11 Big East regular-season titles and 11 league tournaments. Her Huskies squads have made it as far as the NCAA semifinals four times. They've done a lot of knocking on the door, but never quite grabbed the biggest prize.

"Most of the top Division I schools have a common style of play because we work with the national team coaches, and they disseminate that information," Stevens said. "It really comes down to the talent on the field and corner execution. Oftentimes when you have equal talent, the set pieces become the defining difference."

If the Huskies are at least close on the talent aspect this season, they can be pretty sure -- with their senior experience -- that set plays will be a strong suit. So will their goalkeeper, sophomore Sarah Mansfield of Cornwall, England, one of the best in Division I.

UConn associate head coach Paul Caddy, a Brit who played the sport collegiately in Wales, has helped provide the Huskies a European recruiting connection. UConn has two players from England and one from Germany.

Plus senior standout Rayell Heistand is from Hamburg -- although not the German city by that name. Heistand, an All-Big East first-team selection in 2010, is one of nine Huskies who hail from Pennsylvania.

Not to shortchange the field hockey talent that emanates from states such as New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, New York and even Connecticut, from which there are three Huskies, but if there's one state that is the epicenter of American field hockey, it's Pennsylvania.

"A lot of it is just numbers; there are over 500 high schools in Pennsylvania that play field hockey," Stevens said. "It's about the same for New Jersey. We have 92 or so in the state of Connecticut. The hockey is good here, but it's really just math: More programs in that area equals more talent."

Stevens is from the American "cradle" of the sport. She grew up in Manheim, Pa., and played collegiately for West Chester. A younger teammate of hers -- and briefly her assistant later at Franklin and Marshall -- was Karen Shelton, who is entering her 31st season as North Carolina's head coach.

Shelton was born in Hawaii and moved around across the country as a child, as her father was in the Army. When she was in fifth grade, her family settled in Pennsylvania, and field hockey became her sport.

Missy Meharg, starting her 24th season as coach at Maryland, also hails from Pennsylvania. So does Virginia coach Michele Madison, Syracuse's Ange Bradley, Ohio State's Anne Wilkinson and Penn State's Charlene Morett. Meaning coaches from seven of the top 10 teams in the preseason poll are from the Keystone State.

UNC's Shelton and Maryland's Meharg have won six NCAA titles at their respective schools. Those two programs have taken the past six national championships, meeting each other in the final the last two years. And the ACC's Wake Forest, coached by Jennifer Averill, also has won three NCAA titles in the past decade.

"I think it's inspiring, because you see what your colleagues are accomplishing, and their only agenda is excellence," Stevens said of being among that group of top coaches. "All of us are very focused on our collegiate programs, but so many of us played on the national team. We want the level of American hockey to continue to improve. That is the overriding sentiment of the coaching group.

"Many of us have been teammates, either in college or national team settings or both. And I think we cheer for each other's successes."

Stevens and the Huskies would love to add another year as "national champion" to the UConn scoreboard that already has 1981 and 1985, titles that were won under coach Diane Wright.

Heistand is one of the players that could be a key factor in UConn challenging for a championship. Asked when she got into field hockey, Heistand laughed and said, "When I was born. Officially, we start in seventh grade at school. But my mom is a coach, and I basically grew up on the field."

Diane Heistand is an assistant coach at Hamburg Area High School, where Rayell's younger sister, Karlie, plays.

"I was a three-sport athlete; I did swimming and track to help me stay in shape for field hockey," Rayell said of her prep days.

"Probably between freshman and sophomore year, that's when I really knew field hockey was my sport. I like that it's a team sport, just being part of a collective effort."

An effort that this year could send the Huskies to field hockey's Final Four in Louisville, Ky., which is actually Big East territory, not ACC turf. Maybe a good omen for the Huskies?

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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