Legends' departures will force Virginia to adapt

Graduation of All-Americans Paige Selenski and Michelle Vittese cause more team-oriented approach offensively


The Virginia field hockey team enters the 2013 season coming off a roller coaster ride of an offseason, including the loss of a pair of perennially dominant players, the addition of a slew of new faces and a realigned ACC that makes the most powerful conference in college field hockey more imposing than ever.

The Cavaliers welcome an impressive freshman recruiting class of nine athletes, but face the daunting tasks of replacing a pair of Olympians with the graduation of Paige Selenski and Michelle Vittese. They will also be competing in a conference that, with the addition of Syracuse, claims four of the top seven teams in the 2012 final coaches poll.

Selenski and Vittese are two of the most decorated players in Virginia field hockey history and were vital to the Cavaliers’ success throughout the past five years – they redshirted the 2011 season to train with the U.S. National Team. In their four seasons, Virginia made four NCAA tournament appearances, including two trips to the National Semifinals.

Selenski finished her career ranking first all-time in points and second all-time in goals at Virginia. She was also the 2012 ACC Offensive Player of the Year and a four-time All-American, while Vittese earned All-American honors three times in her career. Though they may be irreplaceable on an individual level, the Cavaliers see their departure as an opportunity to unite the team.

“When you have two dominating players like Michelle and Paige, you have superstars and then a cast around them,” coach Michele Madison said. “[In replacing them] it seems like we’re all starting on the same footing and moving forward together, not trying to fill gaps.”

With the graduation of Selenski and Vittese, along with the transfer of rising junior forward Rachel Sumfest, the Cavaliers lost three players that accounted for 63 percent of their 2012 goals. The offense seems to be in good hands, however, with senior Elly Buckley moving from back to forward. Though Buckley spent last season leading the Cavalier defense, she is a forward by trade.

“I really like forward much better than back, so I’ve been really excited for this season,” Buckley said. “There’s definitely still room for improvement, though.”

Buckley played forward for the Cavaliers in each of her first two seasons, but was moved to back when Selenski returned from the London games. The senior earned All-American honors twice and ranked fourth in the conference in goals each of her seasons at forward. Even while playing on the defensive side of the ball last year, she ranked No. 23 nationally in goals per game and even garnered preseason All-ACC honors at forward for the 2013 season.

In addition to Buckley, the Virginia attack returns seniors Hadley Bell and Carissa Vittese, who ranked fifth and sixth on the team, respectively, in points last season.

Although the Virginia offense will look much different than it did last year with the departures of Selenski and the elder Vittese, the defense remains fairly constant. Excluding Buckley, Virginia will return five backs from 2012, including senior Katie Robinson and junior Maddie DeCerbo, who each started every game last year. The Cavaliers also return junior goalkeeper Jenny Johnstone, who led the ACC in save percentage for much of the 2012 season and earned preseason All-ACC honors this year.

The substantial shakeup of the Virginia offense could put more pressure on the defense to be lights-out this year, but Johnstone said that would not be the case.

“The defense always does its own thing – it doesn’t really concern us what the strikers are doing,” Johnstone said. “As long as we can keep it strong in the back, hopefully it will mean we have more opportunities up front.”

The entire Cavalier roster will be revamped this season by a substantial cast of incoming talent, with nine recruits and one transfer joining the team. Among the newcomers are two high school All-Americans – forward Caleigh Foust and midfielder Macy Peebles. Peebles, who hails from Yorktown, Va., was also named the 2012 Virginia State Player of the Year.

“Youth always brings a lot of enthusiasm,” Madison said. “They’re right in there, chomping at the bit and ready to contribute. It creates a nice undercurrent to drive the upperclassmen and bring some new life into the team … I hope at least a handful of them contribute significant minutes.”

Despite all the changes during the offseason, the Cavaliers are strictly focused on the upcoming season and all that they can accomplish moving forward as a team.

“We just want to push hard every single day and be the best team that we can be together,” Bell said. “We’re a very good team unit and we all use each other and trust each other, and I think that’s going to help us the entire season.”

Virginia was pegged to finish sixth in the ACC this season by the conference’s coaches, a somewhat suspect prediction given the Cavaliers’ second place finish last season. Three teams that placed above Virginia – Maryland, Syracuse and North Carolina – competed in the NCAA Semifinals last season, but Duke and Wake Forest, the other teams voted above the Cavaliers, failed to reach the tournament entirely.

“We’re not going to let other people define who we are and what we do,” Madison said of the ranking. “It’s just motivation for us to prove everyone wrong.”

Despite the ranking, Madison said the team’s preseason performance shows its strength in the coming season.

“They are all dedicated and believe that they can get the most of themselves out on the field,” she said. “They’ve made big strides and commitments to do that – they all came back early this summer to start training by themselves, and it’s paid off already. They take giant steps forward instead of baby steps.”

The squad saw its first action of the year last Thursday in a scrimmage with William & Mary. Virginia took the match, 2-1, with goals by Buckley and Bell. The Cavaliers appeared in midseason form, successfully controlling the pace of the game and outshooting the Tribe 23-8.

“That was the best scrimmage that we’ve had in preseason since I’ve been here,” Johnstone said. “We’re playing like a really good team. The freshmen have come in really positive and wanting to learn the system and then the upperclassmen are playing strong as well.”

The Cavaliers will face a pair of challenging matches early this year as they host Louisville and Penn State this weekend to start the season. Virginia takes the field for its first regular season contest Friday at 6 p.m. against the Cardinals, who finished in the top 25 last season.

The Cavaliers will then host their first marquee matchup of the season against Penn State Sunday. The Nittany Lions finished the 2012 season ranked No. 3 in the country after reaching the NCAA Quarterfinals and losing only three games all season.

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