The No. 3 Virginia field hockey team opens up its 2011 campaign this weekend, hosting Virginia Commonwealth and No. 8 Penn State. The Cavaliers are coming off two consecutive trips to the NCAA semifinals and are looking toward the finals this year.
"We always expect to win, to come away with the championship," senior midfielder Rachel Jennings said.
The Cavaliers have won 38 of 46 games the past two seasons, but both years ended in losses to ACC rival North Carolina. Instead of disheartening the team, however, the losses have only emboldened the players, who are confident in this team's title chances.
"There's nothing else we're looking forward to," said sophomore forward Elly Buckley, who scored 19 goals last season. Both she and Jennings were named to the preseason All-American team Tuesday.
Sixth-year coach Michele Madison leads a new-look Virginia team onto the field this year after the departures of All-Americans Paige Selenski and Michelle Vittese. The two were chosen to play on the U.S. National Team in the upcoming Pan-American games, with a chance to compete in the London 2012 Olympic Games. Their graduation leaves Virginia with only three seniors, but at least one of those players is not concerned.
"Obviously [the freshmen] need to learn how we play, and adapt to the whole college environment," Jennings said. "I think they're making a very good adjustment. We have high hopes for them."
The freshmen will be tested immediately: the ACC is a historically brutal conference, and it boasts three nationally ranked teams this year in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. Even more impressively, the ACC has produced the last nine NCAA championship teams, with Maryland taking the title last year.
"[Playing in the ACC] makes us so much better, and much more competitive," Buckley said. "It's fun to play against the best teams."
Jennings agreed, adding that the Cavaliers may have an advantage compared to the other teams in their conference.
Virginia "has a very unique way of playing," she said. "People always have a tough time playing us, so we're going to stick to that."
This weekend should serve as a good early test for the Cavaliers. VCU comes to Charlottesville today led by junior forward Kelsey Scherrer, who scored 15 goals in 20 games last year. Between 1993 and 2001, the Rams tallied a 5-44 record against conference opponents, but have begun rebuilding the program under coach Kelly McQuade's guidance. The team's 8-9 campaign in 2009 was its best finish in five years, and when the Rams ended their 2010 season 13-7, the turnaround earned McQuade the Coach of the Year award from the Colonial Athletic Association.
Sunday matches the Cavaliers against No. 8 Penn State in the weekend's marquee game. Junior forward and Second-Team All-American Kelsey Amy leads the Nittany Lions into Charlottesville, coming off a sophomore season which saw her score 19 goals. The team should provide a difficult matchup, but the Cavaliers said they will not break from the proven success of an offensive philosophy.
"U.Va. is known for being aggressive and fast, so I think were going to stick to that game plan," Jennings said. "[We'll] basically try to out run the other team, stick to our basic skills and show everything we've learned in preseason."
Today's game starts at 5 p.m. at Turf Field, and Sunday's action begins at 1 p.m.