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No. 6 field hockey seeks success in stacked ACC

Freshman Vittese looked at to replace four-time all-American Buckley

The No. 6 Virginia field hockey team opens its season Friday afternoon with high expectations, a wealth of talent and an unusually young team. The Cavaliers could be poised to make a deep run in the postseason, but with a cast of primarily underclassmen, the task will require constant development and an attention to detail.

“We’re always looking to have a Final Four appearance, and a national championship appearance would be even better, but this year we’re really focusing on what is directly in front of us and taking everything by storm,” redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Rebecca Holden said.

Virginia is coming off of a season where it was ranked as high as No. 4 in the country, but fell in the first round of both the ACC and NCAA championships to Duke and Massachusetts, respectively. This year, despite being ranked sixth nationally, the team is pegged to finish sixth in the conference, ahead of only ACC newcomer Louisville.

The Cavaliers return four of their top five goal scorers from last season, but graduated their star in forward Elly Buckley. Buckley was a four-time all-American — only the fourth Cavalier to accomplish the feat — and led the team in scoring last year with 20 goals, eight ahead of second place.

“We have to have more of a team approach to scoring now, as opposed to centering it all around Elly Buckley,” coach Michele Madison said. “The team has to just embrace a systematic way of scoring and a lot of rebounds and deflections.”

But the loss of Buckley may end up being a zero-sum game as the season progresses — with the addition of highly touted freshman Tara Vittese, Virginia is simply trading out one preseason All-ACC selection for another.

In fact, Vittese is the first player in school history to earn preseason conference honors as a freshman. Followers of Virginia field hockey may recognize Vittese as the younger sister of former Cavalier and Olympian Michelle Vittese, as well as four-year Virginia starter Carissa Vittese.

“Tara is a primetime player,” Madison said. “She’s the top recruit coming out of the country, and everyone wanted her. She has international experience, she does things with the ball that are special for her age, she’s been on the [USA U21] team for three years — and I think she’s stolen all the best parts of her sisters.”

Though Vittese is still unproven at the collegiate level, the Cavaliers return plenty of talent to justify the team’s ranking among the elite. Most notable may be a core of sophomores which performed wonders last year in their inaugural seasons.

Leading the list is standout midfielder Lucy Hyams, who — along with tallying five goals and a team-high 11 assists last year — was named ACC Freshman of the Year.

“[The sophomore class] has definitely matured,” Hyams said. “We had a lot of goal-scorers in our class and a lot of starters, which is really exciting. Even just in preseason, we can see that we’ve grown so much as a group, and I think we have a lot of things to show people.”

On the attack, the Cavaliers are seeking added production from sophomores Caleigh Foust and Riley Tata, who last year ranked second and third on the team with 12 and 11 goals, respectively.

Additionally, after Team USA High Performance training, five sophomores were selected to compete in the USA U21 Championships, which compiles top young talent seeking a spot on the Junior National Team. That group included Tata, midfielders Macy Peebles and Emilia Tapsall, and backs Emily Faught and Jeannie Blackwood.

“It really helped that five of the [sophomores] trained with the High Performance team,” Madison said. “That really gave them more experience and more game readiness. We’re going to rely heavily on that class.”

The Cavaliers also welcome back a solid group of seniors, all of whom offer both talent and leadership to a team which is more than 70 percent underclassmen. Their impact will be seen primarily on the defensive end, with backs Kelsey LeBlanc and Maddie DeCerbo touting 76 career starts between the two. But Madison said some freshmen were also in top consideration for starting roles in the backfield, including Nadine de Koning, Becca Zamojcin and Rachael Ulsh.

In goal, Virginia returns senior Jenny Johnstone, an All-ACC goalkeeper who already ranks 10th in career saves for the program, and Holden, a sophomore who took a redshirt last season.

“We have a lot of energy defensively,” Holden said. “It’s really great that we have two experienced goalkeepers that can let the defense know what we expect of them. It’s good when you have first years coming in at back that you can communicate and teach them the game right off the bat.”

Madison said Johnstone and Holden would share goalkeeping duties this year, each boasting a different skillset when it comes to the position. While Holden offers speed and quickness, Johnstone can better read attack structures and get in the right position.

“Jenny and I have two very distinct styles of play,” Holden said. “This year, in terms of playing, I think we’ll be a really dynamic goalkeeping team. Where one of us might waiver in a certain skillset, the other is strong in that area.”

While the traditional conference gauntlet for the Cavaliers was lightened with the departure of No. 1 Maryland to the Big 10, Virginia still faces an ACC which features all seven of its teams ranked in the top 15 nationally, including four teams in the top six. To make matters worse, the Cavaliers must play the top two teams in the conference — No. 2 North Carolina and No. 4 Duke — on the road.

“The schedule is brutal, but it has to be brutal because we play in at brutal conference,” Madison said. “But that’s what gets you sharp and gets you ready for championship play.”

The Cavaliers open their season Friday at 4:30 p.m. with a matchup against in-state rival William & Mary. Virginia has historically played strongly against the Tribe, leading the all-time series 26-15-2, but was upset at home last season 2-1. The shot differential in that game was 18-5 in favor of Virginia, but William & Mary took advantage of its opportunities.

“It was just one of those days where you shake your head and wonder,” Madison said on last year’s game. “But you have to get back and learn from everything. This year’s a new year and we’re looking forward to going to Williamsburg.”