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Only Carolina sits between Cavaliers and NCAA finals

Virginia hopes to win rubber match against Tar Heels, progress to national title game; Princeton, Maryland compete in other semifinal

The No. 2 Virginia field hockey has found itself in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, facing a familiar foe in No. 3 North Carolina tomorrow in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The game will mark the third meeting between the two teams this season. They last collided in the ACC Tournament semifinals Nov. 6, when Virginia (20-3) claimed a 1-0 win against the Tar Heels. Previously, in an Oct. 17 match, North Carolina handed the Cavaliers their second of only two regular season losses in a 2-1 overtime heartbreaker.

"Having the experiences against UNC definitely helps," sophomore midfielder Rachel Jennings said. "But it's balanced out. Having beat them last, we know they're going to come back for some blood. But we're comfortable in that we've faced challenging teams."

Virginia advanced to the Final Four as a result of a 3-2 overtime home win against Michigan State (18-4) Sunday. Sophomore midfielder Paige Selenski netted the game-winner 1:52 into overtime.

"I'm excited. I feel like it's our year and we're meant to go [to the Final Four]," Selenski said. "We're not surprised in that we know we have the talent and skill but we also know nothing's going to come easy for us. We work hard for it."

The appearance will be the Cavaliers' first in the NCAA semifinals with coach Michele Madison, and the team's third overall. Madison previously took Michigan State to the semifinals in 2002 and 2004.

"The impact of the Final Four will not hit them until they are at the event; the professionalism and the magnitude," Madison said. "I try to prepare my team and minimize the distractions. We need to stay organized but enjoy the moment."

Though tomorrow's match will be the first time many Virginia players see action in such a large-scale arena, the team remains adamant about taking games one step at a time.

"We have to be able to get 70 minutes together, come out really hard and play with intensity," senior midfielder Traci Ragukas said.

North Carolina defeated Wake Forest 4-1 to earn its spot in the semifinals, despite Wake Forest holding the lead in shots (13-8) and penalty corners (7-3). To win, Virginia will have to continue its streak of outstanding defensive performances led by junior goalkeeper Kim Kastuk, who has recorded eight shutouts, 67 saves and a .788 save percentage this season.

Both teams' experience with the opponent also grants coaches and players a degree of flexibility entering the match.

"It's a matter of tweaking some thinks, really breaking down our game plan and fixing a couple things," Madison said, "We know they're a corner team. We can't give up corners, we have to move on offense, find open players and play our game of hockey."

Tomorrow's game offers a matchup of two potent offenses. Selenski, who found the back of the cage twice against Michigan State, is the Cavaliers' leading scorer with 26 goals. Having tallied 17 scores, senior back Melanie Brill leads the Tar Heels, while freshman midfielder Kelsey Kolojejchick has contributed 15.

If Virginia defeats North Carolina, it will face the winner of the Maryland-Princeton contest played earlier in the day. The Cavaliers lost to the Terrapins in the ACC Championship finals two weeks ago, while a Princeton contest would mark the first meeting between Jennings and one of her triplet sisters, Erin Jennings.

"It would be obviously hilarious, of course, and so fun," Jennings said. "But we need to focus on UNC first"