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No. 7 Virginia field hockey team eyes elusive win against rival No. 4 Maryland

Two-time defending national champs come to Turf Field looking to extend 14-year dominance over Cavaliers

The No. 7 Virginia women’s field hockey team is now five weeks into its 2012 season, and chances to exhale have been few. The Cavaliers (9-2, 1-0 ACC) played ranked opponents in seven of their first 11 contests, and a single goal decided five of those 11 games.

The going, however, only gets tougher from here. Friday evening at Turf Field, Virginia takes on No. 4 Maryland. The Terrapins (7-1, 2-0 ACC), NCAA champions in 2010 and 2011, suffered their only loss this season in an Aug. 31 contest against No. 8 Old Dominion.

Maryland’s five-game unbeaten run includes victories against then-No. 14 Wake Forest and then-No. 18 Boston College. Maryland has outscored its September opponents by a 27-6 margin.

Despite the difficulty of the impending matchup, the Cavaliers’ confidence is arguably as high as it has been all season. Last weekend, the team recorded wins on the road against Boston College and No. 12 Boston University, yielding only one goal in the process. The second win was the 500th in program history.

“The BU game was really great because it was the first time we really stuck to our system and our game plan,” senior midfielder Michelle Vittese said. “As a group, we played U.Va. hockey — we marked and we were very strong on the ball. I was really proud of us.”

For the Cavaliers to continue their strong play Friday, they will have to break from recent history. Virginia has not defeated Maryland since 2001. Its last home victory against the Terrapins was in 1998. Apprehension, though, is far from the Cavaliers’ minds.

“It’s really fun to have a challenge like that,” junior forward Hadley Bell said. “It keeps us motivated to keep us playing very well.”

To make matters even tougher against the battle-tested Terps, the Cavaliers must contend with Maryland’s fast-paced tempo. The Terrapins’ fleet-footed, veteran attack is headed by junior forward Jill Witmer and senior midfielder Megan Frazer, both first-team All-Americans last season. Meanwhile, junior defender Ali McEvoy, a 2011 All-ACC selection, leads the team on the stat sheet with seven goals to her credit this season.

“Maryland throws a lot of aerial balls, so we have to get ready for that,” Virginia coach Michele Madison said. “They can hit it 45 or 50 yards in the air, so we have to prepare for that type of game. They have a lot of speed up front and good possession through the midfield. We’ll have to bring our A-game.”

Virginia has reason to be wary of a less decorated Terrapin as well. Freshman forward midfielder Alyssa Parker, a starter in half the team’s eight games, has scored five goals in Maryland’s two ACC wins, including a hat trick against Boston College.

With all the talent Virginia must shut down, Madison has emphasized to her players the importance of focusing on the present rather than past shortcomings.

“History doesn’t matter,” she said. “All that matters is what we’re doing now. We’ve come close in recent years, but we need to finish it off. It takes a really good effort to beat a team like Maryland.”

This Virginia team has as good a chance as any to knock off such a high-caliber opponent. The Cavaliers are undefeated in four home games and have outscored opponents 48-17 overall. With their top two weapons — redshirt senior forward Paige Selenski and Vittese, both of whom missed the 2011 season to play for the U.S. national team — the Cavaliers aim to turn the tide against the Terps.

“So far, this is the biggest game for us,” Vittese said. “It’s going to be interesting because they have a lot of good players, they’re very well-coached, and they’re very disciplined. It’ll be good, because we’ll be testing our game against a team that is very similar to us.”

Sunday, the Cavaliers face a quick turnaround with a 1 p.m. game against St. Joseph’s University. The visiting Hawks (2-7, 0-0 Atlantic 10) have lost their last two games by a combined score of 10-2. They have struggled offensively all season, having scored more than two goals in a game just once. Only sophomore forward Jordan Martin has tallied double-digit points this season.

Though the Cavaliers can’t afford to look ahead to their matchup against St. Joseph’s, especially given their Friday opponent, Madison expects her team to be ready for another battle.

“We’re really just focused on Maryland for right now,” Madison said. “We’ll hit the board for St. Joe’s on Saturday. I imagine they will have a lot of speed and put a lot of pressure on the ball.”