The third-ranked Virginia field hockey team continues conference play this weekend, traveling to Chapel Hill, N.C. to take on its third top-five opponent in four games.
After the Cavaliers earned a well-deserved 2-1 victory against then-No. 3 Princeton last Friday, the team didn't have much of an opportunity to celebrate and rest during Fall Break. Instead, Virginia (11-1, 1-1 ACC) had to start preparing for Saturday's huge showdown at No. 1 North Carolina (14-0, 4-0 ACC), the team that ended Virginia's historic season last year in the NCAA semifinals.
Junior midfielder Rachel Jennings, cognizant of her team's struggles to beat Maryland and North Carolina on a consistent basis, noted that last season's season-ending loss hurt even more because the Cavaliers managed to beat the indomitable Tar Heels in last year's ACC Tournament.
"It's going to be a revenge match," Jennings said. "They knocked us out of the [NCAA Tournament's] Final Four [last season], so we still have some tough feelings toward them."
Considering Virginia is already in a hole in conference standings because of its ACC loss to Maryland two weeks ago, the team also knows that this game will be a season-definer.
"In the ACC, every game essentially is a must-win game," coach Michele Madison said. "When you have [almost all of] the teams in the top 10 of the rankings and you play Maryland and North Carolina especially, you can't have a down week."
To prepare her team for its upcoming challenge, Madison focused on stepping up the intensity of practices. The Tar Heels are balanced and prolific in both attack and defense, she said, adding that her Virginia team needs to focus on maximizing its play against a similarly talented team.
"Against North Carolina, the top team in the nation, we just have to try and play our game," Madison said. "If we get sucked into playing their game at their home turf, we'll get into a hole and we can't afford that."
North Carolina, which has scored 53 points to a total of six from its opponents this season, features sophomore midfielder Kelsey Kolojejchick - who leads the team with 29 points - and sophomore back Caitlin Van Sickle - who carries 22 points on the season - on attack.
The Tar Heels' defense has been equally stellar, to the point that senior goalkeeper Jackie Kintzer has only had to make 20 saves on the season. In comparison, Virginia senior goalkeeper Kim Kastuk has 52 saves on the season.
"They have international players all around," Madison said. "The goalie [Kintzer] is a national-team goalie. It's going to be tough, but we have to win. We can't drop this game if we hope to compete in the ACC considering we lost to Maryland."
Despite North Carolina's intimidating nature, Madison is confident that her team is prepared for Saturday's challenge. Her players recognize that the showdown will be a tough and physical battle but hope they can come out on top and avoid dropping to 1-2 in conference play.
"We beat them in [the ACC Tournament] last year by really putting pressure on their defense and just sticking to what we had practiced," Jennings said. "So we hope if we do the same this year, we will turn out on top. Everyone is prepared for a battle and [we'll] give everything we have."
The showdown between the two ACC giants will take place Saturday at Henry Stadium. Game time is set for 1 p.m.