NCAA Field Hockey Season Preview: Division I

Where else in the world can you experience the thrill that is college field hockey? With new faces leading programs, an abundance of returning talent in the collegiate ranks, and a multitude of exciting newcomers, the 2023 NCAA fall season is shaping up to be a thrilling campaign. Although no one really knows what will happen, let’s try to predict how this upcoming season will go, reminisce on the previous, and highlight some of the teams to watch.

Starting off with Division I, whose season officially kicks off on August 25. Let’s predict who the top teams will be this fall.

North Carolina (ACC)

It seems crazy that only last season Erin Matson was being highlighted as a player to watch as she used her final year of eligibility playing at North Carolina for the great Karen Shelton. Matson is still in the conversation — only this time in her first season as head coach for her alma mater. Everyone who follows college field hockey will be waiting with bated breath to see how the young star transitions from being an athlete into the role of leading one of the most dominant programs.

In addition to “losing” Matson, North Carolina will be missing a few key pieces of their lineup from last year with Meredith Sholder graduating, Ashley Sessa taking an Olympic waiver, and sophomore goalkeeper Kylie Walbert transferring to Delaware. It shouldn't be too hard for the Tar Heels to fill in the gaps, as they always seem to have a never-ending pipeline of talent. A cohort of talented freshmen (including Malvern, Pa. native Charly Bruder) will join returners such as Sietske Brüning, Katie Dixon, Ryleigh Heck and  Paityn Wirth. Bruder, Dixon, Heck, and Kiersten Thomassey – all members of the U.S. U-21 Women’s National Team (and some on the senior squad) – are fresh off winning gold at the women’s Junior Pan American Cup (JPAC) back in April.

North Carolina has won four of the last five NCAA Championships and had a perfect 21-0 season last year. They’re still likely to be the powerhouse of college field hockey, but with the departure of legends Shelton and Matson — the latter as a recent three-time Honda Award winning player — other teams may have a chance to shake things up.

Northwestern (B1G)

The Wildcats are responsible for preventing North Carolina from going five for five on recent NCAA Titles. After defeating the Tar Heels in the first round of NCAA postseason play in 2021, the Wildcats went on to defeat Liberty in the championship to win their first-ever title. Last season, Northwestern again made it to the final, but this time they fell 2-1 to North Carolina. They are no doubt going to be good again – a strong team that shines even in arguably the top conference, the Big Ten.

In helping to fill the hole that was created by the graduation of All-American Bente Baekers, Northwestern will be adding seven freshman – including skilled athlete from Philadelphia, Pa., Olivia Bent-Cole. With the addition of Bent-Cole, Northwestern now boasts four USWNT athletes – returning is senior Lauren Wadas, plus graduate student Alia Marshall. Missing this fall will be senior Maddie Zimmer, who is taking an Olympic waiver. Annabel Skubisz returns for her fourth season in goal for the Wildcats, a member of the U-21 USWNT and two-time NCAA All-Tournament Team selection. There is no doubt we will see a good showing from head coach Tracey Fuchs and her Wildcats.

Penn State (B1G)

It’s tough being in the Big Ten. But last season, Penn State impressed with a shiny 7-1 conference record. That means they defeated huge opponents such as Iowa, Maryland and Michigan. Their only blemish was a 5-4 overtime loss to then-No. 2 Northwestern.

Good news for the Nittany Lions is that Mackenzie Allessie returns to the field for her fifth season. The veteran is a two-time first team All-American, who also led in assists in the Big Ten last season. Up on the forward line is senior Sophia Gladieux, who finished top in the Big Ten in average goals per game last season (1.095), and returning as a graduate student to anchor the defense is goalkeeper Brie Barraco.

With the retirement of Charlene Morett-Curtis, long-time associate head coach Lisa Bervinchak Love will step in this season as the new head coach of Penn State.

Maryland (B1G)

There was another team in the Big Ten that went 7-1 last season, and that was Maryland. The Terrapins really had to flex their overtime muscles – defeating conference opponents Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern all in extra time play. After only losing two games in the regular season — to Penn State and Princeton — Maryland got beat twice by identical 2-1 scorelines by a Northwestern team that was heating up in post-season play – once in the Big Ten semifinals and again in the NCAA semifinals.

The Terrapins have seven incoming freshmen this fall, who no doubt hold some stellar talent to replace graduates like Leah Crouse, Emma DeBerdine and Danielle van Rootselaar. The current squad includes USWNT athlete and incoming freshman Josie Hollamon, who joins teammate Hope Rose and fellow U-21 USWNT member Rayne Wright on the field this fall.

In a setting full of coaching changes, Missy Meharg stands out as she enters her 36th season as head coach of Maryland. Meharg is no stranger to success, and we will no doubt see some big wins from the Terrapins this fall.

Michigan (B1G)

There’s been a lot of talk about the Big Ten – so what about the 2022 Big Ten Conference Champion? Michigan may not have had as pretty of a conference regular season record as Maryland and Penn State, but they did claim the crown by defeating Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State, all in a row to win the Big Ten Championship. Despite heating up in a big way, the Wolverines had their postseason dreams cut short when they fell in dramatic fashion to sleeper opponent UAlbany in overtime. (Speaking of which – hoping to see another good run from the Great Danes this season!)

The Wolverines return their top offensive leader, senior Lora Clarke, but will be missing their number two on offense junior Abby Tamer. Tamer made her international debut with the USWNT this past June, and will be another athlete taking an Olympic waiver. Clarke, alongside incoming freshman Abby Burnett, helped the U.S. Women’s Hockey5s National Team to a gold medal at the 2023 Hockey5s Pan American Cups.

Other teams to watch:

At a glance, Iowa had an average season with a conference record of 4-4, and an overall winning percentage of .600. But take a look at who they lost to — Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State. Unlike Maryland, the Hawkeyes weren’t finishers when it came to overtime play. Four of their eight total losses last season were in OT, including a shootout defeat to Northwestern in the NCAA Elite Eight. If Iowa can find the finishing touch on their play, they could really go for a run this season. Coming in for the Hawkeyes, freshman Rachel Herbine will join her sister, junior Annika Herbine, who was the leading goal scorer for Iowa last season.

Saint Joseph’s has been holding their own the past few years, but it’s hard to see exactly where they fall due to the lack of strength in their schedule. Last season, the Hawks lost by just one goal to both Penn State and Virginia, but couldn’t find any luck against North Carolina – both in the regular season and in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament. Saint Joseph’s will return their 2022 leading scorer, senior Lily Santi, while also welcoming Virginia Commonwealth University’s top scorer last season, senior transfer Bridget McCormick.

Representing the Ivy League last season was Princeton. After claiming the de facto Ivy League title by going 7-0 in conference play, the Tigers moved on to the NCAA Tournament where they were knocked out by Syracuse 5-2 in the First Round. It was a tough end for a team that went 13-5 and defeated the Orange, 5-1, earlier in the season. The Tigers will be without midfielder Beth Yeager as she joins USWNT teammates Ashley Sessa, Abby Tamer, and Maddie Zimmer in taking an Olympic waiver to focus on training for upcoming Paris 2024 Olympic Games qualification.

North Carolina excluded, the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) has been falling behind the Big Ten in recent years. Despite this, we can all keep an eye on Syracuse and Virginia. The Orange lost to Maryland in a thrilling shootout in the NCAA Tournament Second Round last fall, while Virginia had experienced their own shootout loss to Iowa in the First Round. Both teams also experienced a one goal loss to North Carolina in ACC postseason play – Syracuse in the semifinal and Virginia in the final.

The Cavaliers return their 2022 offensive leader Laura Janssen, while also boasting several within the U.S. Women’s National Team pathway. Members of the U-21 USWNT Jans Croon and Madison Orsi will be joined by incoming freshman Mia Abello, who represents USA on both the junior and senior squad. For Syracuse, USWNT athlete Charlotte de Vries will be returning as a graduate student to play her final season.

Come back next week for Division II and III season predictions! Also, keep an eye out for the Penn Monto/NFHCA National Coaches Poll Division I preseason rankings, which come out next Tuesday, August 22.

Photos courtesy of North Carolina Athletics, Northwestern Athletics, Penn State Athletics, Maryand Athletics, Michigan Athletics