Squad targets first title
Players hope dominant regular season translates into program’s first ACC crown
After its strongest regular-season showing since 1997, the No. 6 Virginia field hockey team begins its journey for coveted postseason accolades Friday with an ACC tournament semifinal clash against either No. 7 Maryland or No. 22 Duke in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Although the ACC has claimed the majority of NCAA titles, including one in each of the last 10 seasons, the Cavaliers (15-4, 4-1 ACC) have yet to win either an ACC title or a national championship. Redshirt senior forward Paige Selenski said she hopes this is the year Virginia finally breaks through.
“We’ve been so close so many times,” Selenski said. “To win an ACC championship in my senior year would be incredible, and it could definitely happen as long as we come to play.”
The Cavaliers hold a slight advantage against the rest of this year’s field after earning their first first-round bye in nearly 15 years. In a conference with five of its six teams ranked in the top 25 nationally and three in the top 10, any team in the bracket could upend coach Michele Madison’s vaunted squad.
“In postseason play you really have to take one game at a time,” Madison said. “It’s all one and done, so you can only prepare for the team you know you have to play and give it all you’ve got.”
Virginia comes off a 2-1 loss to No. 2 Princeton, a setback some players described as a wake-up call. Despite a strong defensive showing in their second game in two days, the Cavaliers played conservatively for most of the game and rarely got a good look at the goal.
“I think we know that we have things we need to work on,” senior forward Britt Knouse said after the game. “Now that we’re getting into playing-offs, we can work on those things and get better.”
On the field the Cavaliers shine on defense. Virginia leads the ACC with only seven goals allowed, 37 saves and two defensive saves. Sophomore goalkeeper Jenny Johnstone has validated her selection as preseason All-ACC goalkeeper after topping the ACC in saves and goals allowed in five in-conference contests.
“Our defense has been great and Jenny has been fantastic in goal,” Selenski said. “We have so much depth on this team, so we’re able to move people around and get people different roles, which has been one of our biggest strengths all year.”
The Cavalier attack ranks second with 65 shots in conference play, and three Cavaliers — Selenski, sophomore forward Rachel Sumfest and redshirt senior midfielder Michelle Vittese — rank in the top 10 in the ACC for points in conference-only games. Selenski leads the conference with 25 goals and 62 points overall.
Wednesday afternoon, the ACC named Johnstone, Selenski, Vittese and junior back Elly Buckley to the all-conference team. Selenski earned her fourth All-ACC nod, and Vittese and Buckley both won their third.
The Blue Devils (7-10, 0-5 ACC), who Virginia defeated 3-1 last Saturday, struggled mid-season after temporarily losing six players to the Junior Pan-American Games. Now that their roster is fully intact again, they have the potential to mount an upset.
The two-time defending national champion Maryland (14-4, 3-2 ACC) should still be strongly favored in Thursday’s quarterfinal. The Terrapins shut Duke out 2-0 Oct. 6, and all four of its losses this season came by one goal against top-10 opponents.
“If you want to win a championship, you have to beat whoever makes it through,” Madison said. “Maryland obviously has more history behind them, but Duke is desperate and on fire, so they would like nothing better than to upset Maryland.”
The Cavaliers were triumphant against both Maryland and Duke, but Maryland proved a much tougher opponent. In a Sept. 28 showdown marked by dramatic pouring rain, the Terrapins led Virginia with just 20 minutes remaining in the contest before late goals from Selenski and Vittese secured a 3-2 Cavalier win.
“Our expectations as of now will be to just beat the winner of the Maryland-Duke game,” Vittese said. “Hopefully it’s not Maryland, but if it is, we’ve played them before and we’ll be well prepared for that game. I think the expectations for that matchup would be to take what we know from the previous game and make some adjustments to make it less close.”
Looming on the other side of the bracket is No. 1 North Carolina, the only ACC team to have beaten Virginia this season. The Tar Heels (18-1, 5-0 ACC) must first get past the winner of a matchup between Wake Forest and No. 17 Boston College, but all signs point to an easy path to the championship game. In addition to having defeated both these teams, North Carolina has yet to drop a game on its home turf, the site of this year’s tournament.
When the Cavaliers travelled to Chapel Hill Oct. 13 they nearly outlasted the Tar Heels, sustaining a lead into the final five minutes of regulation. Star sophomore forward Charlotte Craddock tied the game in regulation, and North Carolina overpowered Virginia in overtime to scrape a 3-2 victory.
“We’ve played them once, so we know what works against them and what doesn’t work,” Madison said. “We’ll have to go back to the tape once we get to that phase if we advance through the tournament.”
Virginia begins tournament play 3 p.m. Friday. If the Cavaliers advance they will play for the title Sunday at 1 p.m.