GUYER: Young players are stepping up for Virginia

Nine freshmen have joined field hockey with a few bumps and a lot of promise

sp-GWallis-CourtesyVirginiaAthletics

Freshman striker Grace Wallis currently leads the team with 10 points on three goals and four assists. 

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

Last fall’s heartbreaking double-overtime loss to Princeton in the NCAA Tournament ended the Virginia careers of that team’s two top scorers. Transcendent midfielder Tara Vittese, the sport’s first three-time collegiate national player of the year, graduated and was added to the Women’s National Team roster. Forward and reigning ACC Freshman of the Year Pien Dicke did not return this year, deciding instead to play in the Netherlands. 

The 2017 Cavaliers’ high-powered offense defined the team. Virginia led the nation with 4.4 goals scored per game last fall. Vittese and Dicke combined for just over half of the team’s goals. 

Coach Michele Madison’s up-tempo, aggressive offensive style preceded last year’s talented midfielders, and it will succeed them. Though Virginia has struggled to run up the score in games this season — with the exception of an 8-1 win over Drexel in the Cavaliers’ season opener, the team hasn’t exceeded two goals in a game — it’s heartening to see the immediate impact the freshmen have been able to make on offense. 

Freshman striker Grace Wallis leads the team with 10 points on three goals and four assists. Other than in a shut-out loss in August to then-No. 6 Penn State, freshmen have scored in every game. Freshmen midfielders Greer Gill, Amber Ezechiels and Peyton Tollaksen have each tallied two goals so far this season.

Young players make up a large part of the roster, so it bodes well that they have been able to adjust quickly to the tempo of collegiate field hockey and show results. Virginia added nine new players this fall. Many of those were early recruits that committed in 2015.

Even though it’s exciting to see immediate contributions from fast and dynamic players like Wallis and freshman midfielder Jacquelyn Wilkins, the beginning of the season has left some questions unanswered about this team’s ability to produce under pressure. 

Virginia’s offensive system is designed to attack open space with speed. The Cavaliers have demonstrated that they can carry and transfer the ball with confidence. They’ve also created offensive opportunities, cumulatively outnumbering opponents in shots, goals, assists and penalty corners. 

But this Virginia team has struggled to capitalize on those chances in crucial moments. The Cavaliers just couldn’t get a shot off against Penn State Aug. 26, failing to convert on any of its three corners in the second half and falling short even with an additional field player in the final minutes of the game.

Twice this month, the Cavaliers have found themselves in a tie at the end of regulation. The sudden victory overtime periods — modified this year by the NCAA — ended in triumph against Syracuse and disappointment against Old Dominion last weekend. Senior goalkeeper Carrera Lucas is consistent in the cage, but Virginia has to make the most of corner opportunities on the other side of the field in those do-or-die moments.

It’s hard not to compare this team’s game statistics to those from last fall, if only because 11-goal wins and four consecutive shutouts from the 2017 season are so striking. This team is good though, and a few early losses don’t discount that.

The Cavaliers’ offense is by no means sluggish, and their 3-2 overall, 1-0 ACC record is solid. Their older players have embraced leadership positions, and young additions are already playing with aggression and strength on the collegiate level. This team has a high ceiling and should continue to improve through the season — and many of its newly emerging offensive stars will be around for years to come.

Mara Guyer covers field hockey for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at maraguyer@gmail.com or followed on Twitter @maraguyer.

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