When No. 1 Syracuse arrived in Charlottesville for the ACC tournament last November, then-No. 5 Virginia’s then-junior goalkeeper Rebecca Holden was ready.
Even after seven stunning saves by Holden, the Orange still held the lead in the remaining minutes of the semi-final game. In an unexpected Cavalier comeback, then-junior striker Riley Tata tied the game with a beautiful goal.
Twelve minutes remained.
Unless they could score another goal, Virginia needed Holden to pull through. A diving stick save secured the Cavaliers an overtime period — one last chance at to beat Syracuse on the blue.
That chance slipped through Virginia’s fingers when Syracuse’s then-senior forward Emma Russell scored a game-winning goal on a pass from then-sophomore forward Lies Lagerweij. With 8:37 remaining in the first overtime period, the top-seeded Syracuse crushed the Cavaliers’ chances at an ACC tournament title. Hopes were shattered, but the Orange midfielder Laura Hurff, then a sophomore, was not.
Hurff had gone down in front of the net — injured and vulnerable in a perilous place on the field. The umpire had failed to call the play dead, and Holden registered the dangers of leaving Hurff defenseless amid an intense overtime period. Rather than using her pads to protect the net, she chose to protect Hurff.
Holden stepped away from her post to cover Hurff. She was out of place. She had left the net open. Holden had given Russell an open-net to shoot on, an invitation to score.
But more importantly — Holden had saved Hurff from potentially devastating injuries. She had sacrificed a victory for Virginia to protect her opponent. It was an incredible act of sportsmanship, one Holden didn’t even think twice about. If Holden could go back, she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I'm always very concerned in training, and in games, when players go down in front of the cage, because it's incredibly dangerous," Holden said in an interview with Newsplex.
Holden embodied more than just human kindness; she embodied commendable character and compassion. She was smart; she was safe. She had her priorities straight. Holden was everything that an athlete should be, everything a coach could ask for.
“It's just what you do, and I don't think she questioned it," Virginia head coach Michele Madison said. "We didn't even discuss it because that's what you do. You have to go down with human kindness, and I can go down with an act of human kindness."
It’s plays like these that make me proud to be a Cavalier. I’m proud Holden is my peer, proud that she puts safety and compassion above winning. I’m proud Holden represents our school and that a woman of her character chose to call Charlottesville home. I’m proud Virginia could see the bigger-picture importance of Holden’s decision, that we have coaches who support safety over statistics and success.
However, it was disappointing Syracuse failed to recognize the importance of safety and compassion that Virginia acknowledged. After the game, Syracuse’s head coach Ange Bradley spoke highly of Holden’s skill, but absent from her comments was any recognition of the sacrifice that Holden made for her player.
“Virginia’s goalie had a fantastic game today,” Bradley said. “She really made us work really hard to get the result that we were able to get today.”
Syracuse had won, but the story might’ve ended drastically differently had Holden left Hurff exposed on the turf — it could have been disastrous for Hurff or her team. Virginia lost the game, but Syracuse could’ve lost a player.
In June, Holden was honored with the 2015-16 ACC Sportsmanship Award for her admirable actions in this ACC tournament game. She was also named to the ACC All-Tournament team last fall. Holden’s sportsmanship was recognized by many — the media, the ACC and her coach – but never by Syracuse.
“I mean, at the end of the day, I'll always care for my opponent as much as I care for my own teammates,” Holden told Newsplex.
The loss was bittersweet. The Cavaliers could walk away with their heads held high, knowing Holden did the right thing, but that doesn’t silence the sting of defeat. Although the past will not be changed, Virginia might be able to find some resolution in redemption this weekend.
Syracuse will return to Charlottesville on Saturday for its first meeting of the season. With a moral victory already in the books versus the Orange, the Cavaliers will look for a different kind of victory on the blue turf.
Syracuse Athletics declined to comment on last season's play when I emailed the department last week.