No. 5 field hockey prepares for high stakes first round match against Princeton

Cavaliers take on Ivy League foe at home to start NCAA tournament

Field Hockey Photo

Virginia senior midfielder Tara Vittese will look to lead her team past Princeton this Saturday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Amy Zhang | Cavalier Daily

This weekend, the No. 5 Virginia field hockey team is preparing for its first round matchup of the NCAA tournament against No. 14 Princeton for a titanic matchup that will end the season for one of the programs Saturday night.

Last weekend, the Cavaliers (15-4, 5-1 ACC) were eliminated from the ACC tournament in a 0-4 loss to the No. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels (16-4, 3-3 ACC). The Tar Heels have proven to be a thorn in the side of Virginia, and have punished them with their two worst losses of the season. Their first matchup, in October, was another brutal 0-4 loss for Virginia. The Tar Heels will actually be playing on Turf Field earlier in the day against Saint Joseph’s (18-3, 7-1 A10) this year. The winner of that game will face the winner of the Virginia/Princeton game Sunday.

The loss to North Carolina was a definite setback to Virginia’s ambitions this season, but the Cavaliers will have another chance to take on the Tar Heels in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament if they both win their games Saturday. Despite the loss, the Cavaliers are still the regular season ACC champions, and have had a landmark season for the program. The reason for this season’s success, according to head coach Michele Madison, is the grit that the team has.

“I think we’re really committed to being better every day,” Madison said. “We just focused on that in practice, and that wasn’t easy to do when we had a lot of early success. After every loss we had to bounce back, and every time we face adversity, or have an improved performance, win or lose, we always come back stronger.”

That grit will be put to the test this week in their matchup against the Tigers (11-6, 7-0 Ivy), the outright regular season champion of the Ivy League that ran roughshod over the rest of their conference and was competitive against teams like the Tar Heels and undisputed No. 1 Connecticut (19-0, 7-0 Big East). The Tigers are a well balanced team, with powerful weapons on both the offense and defense. Leading points — a weighted combination of goals and assists that determine overall offensive efficiency — for Princeton is senior striker Ryan McCarthy. McCarthy, a sharpshooter that was recently named the Ivy League Offensive Player of the year, has 32 points so far this season. 

On the defensive end, the Tigers are led by sophomore midfielder Maddie Bacskai. Bacskai, the Ivy League’s defensive player of the year, is joined by freshman midfielder Julianna Tornetta, the Ivy League’s Co-Rookie of the Year, to form one of the most imposing midfielder in college field hockey. 

However, the Tigers will have their hands full with Virginia’s own midfield, whose dominance has helped the Cavaliers to one of their best seasons of the past decade. Virginia is led by senior midfielder Tara Vittese, the two-time NFHCA player of the year, whose speed and ball control allows her to run around most defenses to score. Vittese is on track to break several school records, and her current 62 points is more than 20 higher than either of her previous Player of the Year seasons. 

But the true danger of Virginia’s team is its versatility. This season has seen the rise of freshman forward Pien Dicke, who has 48 points of her own so far. Additionally, junior midfielder Greta Ell and junior striker Izzy McDonough have had increased offensive output late in the season, making the Cavaliers’ offense one of the most dangerous in the nation. Virginia’s increasingly airtight defense, which is led by senior backs Becca Zamojcin and Nadine de Koning, and assisted by a breakout performance from freshman back Rachel Robinson, could be the final nail in the coffin for the Tigers’ tournament aspirations.

“I think we've played a lot more as a team and we’ve played a lot simpler as a team,” Zamojcin said. “I also think we have been so successful because we have been using short little passes to each other. We clearly have incredible stars, but I don’t think we rely on them as heavily as previous teams have, we just play simple and play together. “

But as in most college sports, success in the regular season does not always translate to success in the postseason, especially against teams as good as Princeton. 

“Its way different, it's just a different feeling,” Zamojcin said. “We’re just playing, one and done. It's a lot of pressure, but I think we ready for it, and going in with confidence that, even if we get scored on, we can give it right back.”

The game will take place at 2 p.m. at Turf Field in Charlottesville.

related stories