WASHINGTON, D.C. - When field hockey began as an intercollegiate sport at Catholic University in 1969, athletic opportunities were few for women on campus. Fifty years later, the program is thriving.
"Our 50th anniversary represents a profound history of opportunity and empowerment for female student-athletes," said head field hockey coach Heidi Lewis. "I think its an important milestone to celebrate. Hopefully, it's a catalyst for us to keep building the program and tradition."
The university will commemorate 50 years of Catholic field hockey Saturday in conjunction with its 1 p.m., home game against No. 12 Messiah. The Cards enter with a 3-3 record after its 3-0 win at Randolph-Macon on Wednesday.
Field hockey alumnae from as far back as 1982 will be recognized on the field at Cardinal Stadium, and t-shirts will be given out. A catered postgame tailgating party is set for the new patio behind DuFour Center.
"It's really cool that we have that large of a spread of alumnae still connected to the program," Lewis said.
Since 2011, Catholic has played in five NCAA tournaments (2011-15), advancing to two national quarterfinals (2013-14), and won four Landmark Conference championships (2011-13 and 2015).
From Michelle Wentling (honorable mention, 1988) to Kelly Cousoulis (second-team, 2017), 14 Cardinal women have been named All-American 22 times. Tracey Scanlon (2011), Megan Comunale (2013) and Maura Campbell (2014) were honored as first-team All-Americans. Campbell was a three-time selection.
Gia Cillizza, the program's all-time winningest coach, led the team for 14 years (2002-15) and posted a record of 186-104 (.641). Lewis, her successor and former assistant coach, is already second in victories (36) and winning percentage (.621).
"The caliber of player we go after is either top-level Division III or is probably also looking at Division I or Division II offers," Lewis said. "We're regularly bringing in young women who are deciding between us and a similarly profiled Division I institution."
The Early Days
Intercollegiate field hockey at Catholic evolved out of a fall class offered to women in the university's physical education program. Jone Dowd, the founder of women's sports at the university, was hired in 1961 to run the women's portion. She recalls Ann Wisher teaching the class. This became an intramural sport, and eventually teams of women from local colleges began competing against one another in what was known as extramurals.
Dowd said that was "the first step into intercollegiate competition."
No information is available from what is recognized as Catholic's first field hockey season in 1969. The squad won its first game the following year, but no coach is listed.
"A number of the women's coaches that we had in, like, volleyball, basketball and swimming came from the better skilled students," Dowd said. "Ann Wisher put together the field hockey team, and I took the teams over to play the other colleges. That was in the early 1960s."
Claire Williamson is listed as the first head coach in 1971. The Cards did not win a game either of the next two years.
Marie Wiles, in her only year as head coach (1978), led the Cardinals to its first winning season (5-4-3). From 1984-88, Mary Milne steered Catholic to three winning campaigns, including a then school-record 12 wins in 1986. She left for Division I Ohio University, where she coached from 1989-98, and now works for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Eileen Ugast Hudson, another five-year coach, won 10 games in 1994.
Dave Foley, the school's only male field hockey head coach, guided the Cardinals to a 22-17 record in 1997-98. Also in the mid to late 1990s, the next two coaches in Catholic history were playing field hockey at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio: Lisa Thompson (nee DeStefano) and Cillizza, then known as Gia Fenoglio.
Cardinals Begin to Soar
Thompson became head coach in 1999 with Cillizza as her assistant. In 2001, Thompson leads the Cardinals to what was at that point the program's finest record (16-4). The squad advances to its first postseason tournament when it was selected to host the ECAC Mid-Atlantic Tournament, where it places second.
The year came in the midst of Thompson's mother dying and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"A lot of our girls had to make many trips back to New Jersey and Philadelphia to attend viewings and funerals," Thompson said at the time. "Then, when my mother passed away at the beginning of October, our spirits were again tested. I was back and forth from Buffalo. The girls were forced to lead practices themselves [and] continue to balance their academic workload. [Gia] suddenly was working two full-time jobs and everyone continued to hold their heads high. We had some of the highest GPAs in my time here at Catholic."
Thompson's coaching performance was so impressive that she was hired to coach at Division I Davidson (N.C.) College. She was with the Wildcats from 2002-06 before leading Charlotte Country Day School to four North Carolina state championships. She co-founded and serves as CEO of a premium apparel company, Ivy Citizens.
"She's a great coach. I learned a lot from her," Cillizza said. "She's one of my best friends to this day. That last year was really special. She was going through so much with her mother being sick and the September 11th attacks. … It was a very intense and emotional season."
Program on the Rise
Cillizza succeeded her former college teammate in 2002 and guided Catholic to unprecedented success. She followed her 6-11 debut with 13 straight winning seasons. The final 12 featured double-digit wins.
By 2005, the Cardinals earned a first-round bye in the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) Tournament. After downing St. Mary's (Md.), 2-0, they reached their first league championship game, where they lost 3-1 at eventual national champion Salisbury (Md.).
One of the biggest wins in program history came on Oct. 4, 2006 when Catholic went back to Salisbury and defeated the fourth-ranked Sea Gulls, 1-0. Jayme Dinsmore's lone goal, combined with stellar defense and goalkeeper Marian Cassilly's five saves were the difference.
It was Salisbury's first home loss in six years.
"Their players literally didn't know what to do when the final whistle blew," Cillizza said. "They just stood on the field and looked around because none of them had ever lost at home. We, on the other hand, were going crazy."
The Cardinal victory, at the time just their second over Salisbury, announced to the college field hockey world that Catholic had arrived as one of the finest teams in Division III.
"In the early years, when we weren't winning as much, we were playing Top 20 programs that we had never played before," Cillizza said. "We started playing the teams that we were going to have to beat to see what it took to get to their level. Along the way, we picked off some of those top programs."
The 2006 Redbirds finished 5-1 in the CAC (13-8 overall) and won the regular-season championship. They lost to Salisbury, 3-1, in the tournament final, this time at home. And for the second straight year, Catholic won a game in the ECAC Tournament before falling in the semifinals.
Cillizza was named CAC Coach of the Year in 2006, the Cardinals' final season in the league. Dr. Mike Allen, then Catholic's athletic director and now president of Barry University, played a key role in establishing the Landmark Conference. The league named Cillizza and her assistants field hockey Coaching Staff of the Year six times.
Lewis became a Cillizza assistant in 2013 and was part of two (2014-15) staffs honored by the Landmark.
"Gia really had a vision to build the success, the culture and the legacy of the program," Lewis said. "She has high standards and expectations. At the same time, she cared about every single person on her team."
Cillizza guided the Cardinals to five Landmark regular-season titles (2007-08, '11, '12 and '14). In 2010, they lost the Landmark Tournament final at No. 18 Juniata, 3-2, but rose from the disappointment to win three games in the ECAC playoffs and capture the program's first postseason championship.
"It was a very tough day last weekend [at the Landmark final] for everyone associated with our program," Cillizza said that day. "I'm impressed with the way we bounced back, though. We picked ourselves up and made it through three very tough games against three strong teams, and I think that says a lot about the character of this team. They're a special group, that's for sure."
On to the NCAAs
As good as its 17-4 record and postseason triumph was, Catholic performed even better in 2011. The Cardinals followed their only regular-season loss (at No. 10 Rowan) with 13 consecutive victories. The streak included wins at No. 20 Juniata and at home over top-ranked Salisbury. Catholic breezed into the Landmark Tournament in its familiar position as top seed.
This time, however, they finally broke through and won the first conference championship in school history. Mary Swarthout scored a pair of goals in the 5-1 home win over Drew. Tracey Scanlon, Colleen Harwood and Katie Bertrand tallied one apiece to lead Catholic to its first NCAA Tournament.
Cillizza said after the heartbreak of losing so many conference finals, winning in 2011 was her biggest thrill as Cardinal mentor.
"We were in so many championship games, and every single one was close," she said. "We'd lose in overtime, double overtime, going to strokes. It was crazy. We were so close for a really long time. I don't know that we were so much better [that year] than all the other teams that had been knocking on the door, but we put it all together."
The Cardinals hosted Eastern in the first round of the NCAA playoffs and won, 5-2. Three days later, they lost to Lynchburg in Ewing, N.J., 2-0. Campbell, Scanlon and Swarthout were named All-American in leading Catholic to another 17-win season. Its .895 winning percentage sits atop the Cardinal record book.
"It was really a special year," Cillizza said. "We had a great group of seniors and a strong freshmen class. I think it was really positive mentally for everyone, but especially for me. It's one thing when you're a player, when you're a senior, when you're a senior's parent or you're an assistant coach, but when you've been doing it since 1999 and you finally have that moment, it's a relief quite frankly."
The 2011 season began a string of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances. The 2013 and 2014 squads each won twice in the NCAAs to advance to the Elite Eight.
The 2013 club was ranked 17th when the season closed with a 1-0 loss at No. 4 Christopher Newport. The following May, the women went on an eight-day trip to Barcelona, Spain. The 2014 edition lost in the Landmark championship but received a first-round bye into the NCAA Tournament.
Ranked seventh, the Cardinals downed No. 19 Messiah, 2-0, before losing at No. 4 College of New Jersey, 1-0. Catholic ended the year 16-4.
Cillizza finished her highly decorated career in Brookland after a 2015 season that saw her team win another Landmark championship with a 2-1 victory at Elizabethtown. The year ended at home with an NCAA loss to Bridgewater (Va.).
Dowd, a 1994 Catholic Hall of Fame inductee, retired in 2008 as associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator. She witnessed first-hand the growth and vibrancy of the field hockey program.
"I consider myself very fortunate to be in athletics at the time I was," Dowd said. "I'm extremely proud of where our women's sports ended up when I retired and where they are now."
A New Era
Cillizza, desiring to spend more time with her husband (Chris) and young sons, announced her departure from the program on March 2, 2016. Following a national search, Lewis was named head coach.
"As an influential assistant with the program during a period of highly successful years, [Heidi] brings an immediate understanding of the team's culture, relational dynamics and competitive aspirations now to the head coaching role," Catholic Athletic Director Dr. Sean Sullivan said in a news release. "I couldn't be more excited to see someone so worthy take the reins."
Lewis has continued playing the nation's top teams in preparation for the rigors of the Landmark Conference. In 2017, she guided the Cardinals to a 15-3 record highlighted by an 11-game winning streak.
"I was really lucky to take over a program that had been built up so completely and so strongly," she said. "The expectation was that we're going to schedule top non-conference opponents. That's a mindset and a tradition that I've tried to continue."