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Virginia garners no. 8 preseason ranking despite 2011 struggles

Olympians Selenski, Vittese return after year away to train with national team

The No. 8 Virginia field hockey team opened its season last Friday with great expectations. Last year the Cavaliers (2-1) finished last place in the ACC and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years. But with the return of redshirt seniors Paige Selenski and Michelle Vittese, who both took last season off to compete with the U.S. National Team, the still-maturing squad is revamped and ready to rebound.

“Our team is looking really good,” Selenski said. “We’re starting to click. It’s going to take a couple of games to really get used to each other again, but I think we’re going to be really good this year.”

Before the 2011 season, the Cavaliers had reached the NCAA tournament semifinals two years in a row and were expected to achieve similar results after being voted No. 2 nationally in the preseason coach’s poll.

But things never seemed to click for the team. They stumbled repeatedly against ranked opponents. The Cavaliers finally defeated a ranked team when they topped No. 6 Duke in the season finale, but it was too little, too late.

“The major thing that contributed to the drop-off last year was not being able to replace Paige and Michelle,” coach Michele Madison said. “They were such a huge part of the team with both leadership and goal scoring … once we started targeting the areas where we needed to get better, we actually started to climb back up at the end, but the season just ended too quickly.”

The Cavaliers return nine starters from last year and three All-Americans — Selenski, Vittese, and junior Elly Buckley. Buckley, a converted back after playing forward in 2011, led the team in scoring last year with 43 points off 17 goals and 9 assists.

On the other side of the field, sophomore goalkeeper Jenny Johnstone, who led the ACC in saves last year, also returns for the Cavaliers. Selenski, Vittese, Buckley and Johnstone were each named to the All-ACC preseason team, making Virginia the most-represented school on the list.

“We didn’t even talk about the preseason awards,” Madison said. “It’s important to have awards like that for inspiration, but to play our style it’s going to take the team. Players get selected for awards when teams are successful. We all have to work together to make it possible for our players to win awards.”

It is extremely rare for a team to finish a year with a losing record and then earn a top-10 preseason ranking the next season. The talent level of Selenski and Vittese is even rarer. The duo decided to take off the 2011 season to train with the U.S. National Team, allowing them to compete in the London Olympics. The American squad failed to move past group play at the Olympics, but last October it defeated Argentina in the Pan American Games final, a victory some consider the greatest in USA Field Hockey history.

Selenski and Vittese are both three-time All-Americans and All-ACC selections. Selenski led the Cavaliers in scoring in each of her first three seasons, and just three games into this season she leads all Virginia players with 11 points. Selenski now sits 48 points behind all-time Virginia leader Meridith Thorpe.

“Having [Vittese and Selenski] back adds a sense of professionalism and maturity to the team,” Madison said. “They’ve grown up for sure. They want the leadership role now, while before they wanted to stand by the sides of their peers. But now they’re at the point where they want to lead.”

One major area the Cavaliers will attempt to improve on this season is defense. The Cavaliers ranked last in goals allowed in 2011 despite leading the conference in saves. This year, the Cavaliers return two of their three starting backs, sophomore Maddie DeCerbo and junior Chloe Pendlebury, and have moved Buckley to fill the third spot.

After allowing three goals in each of the first two games this season, the Virginia defense came alive against Richmond Wednesday, shutting out the Spiders through the first 68 minutes of a 6-1 drubbing.

“We looked good,” Johnstone said after the Richmond game. “As a team, defensively, we’re doing pretty good out there. We definitely look different than last year.”

This weekend the Cavaliers will see action against Towson and No. 3 Old Dominion. Towson (0-2) is coming off a losing season of its own, but unlike Virginia it has had little success reversing the trend. The Tigers were outscored 6-2 and outshot 34-15 in their first two games.

On the other hand, Old Dominion (1-1) will be a force to be reckoned with. After losing to No. 9 Penn State Sunday, the Cavaliers will have their second crack at taking down a ranked opponent. The Lady Monarchs have also suffered a loss to the Nittany Lions this season, but they responded with a victory against No. 25 American. Old Dominion’s national ranking peaked at No. 1 last year as the team advanced to the Final Four.

“ODU is always a really strong, physical team,” Selenski said. “We’re going to need to get ready for that and expect anything that comes at us. Taking what we’ve learned from the past three games is going to be really useful to us. Watching film and watching them to get to know their tendencies is going to be really important.”