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Field hockey returns to the limelight under a new identity

After a disappointing finish in 2018, the Cavaliers have started the 2019 season playing at a championship level

<p>A strong recruiting class has been one of the main keys for the Cavaliers' successful start to their 2019 campaign.&nbsp;</p>

A strong recruiting class has been one of the main keys for the Cavaliers' successful start to their 2019 campaign. 

Over the past few years, Virginia field hockey has established itself as a powerhouse, fueled by an aggressive playstyle that has earned it respect from many teams. Led by Coach Michele Madison, who became only the ninth NCAA Division I coach in history to reach 400 career wins, the Cavaliers have become perennial ACC contenders and plan on taking that success to the national stage, seeking their first national championship in program history.

In 2015 and 2016, Virginia enjoyed a wealth of success, going a combined 33-14 and earning an ACC Championship victory in 2016. The team rode a powerful offense that scored 128 goals and a stout defense that allowed just 99 goals over the two years. 

However, 2017 was the year where the Cavaliers earned national notice. Virginia outscored its opponents by 56 goals that season — 88 goals scored to 32 goals allowed. Madison led the team to a 5-1 conference record and an ACC regular season title.

In short, Virginia was on a sharp uphill trajectory. The Cavaliers had improved every year over the previous three years and looked to make noise in the ACC Tournament. They ultimately earned a date with North Carolina in the ACC Championship, but the Tar Heels shut them out to capture the ACC crown. 

Virginia had to quickly turn its attention to the NCAA Tournament. Rather than bounce back from the tough loss, the team suffered a heartbreaking double-overtime defeat to Princeton. In just two games, the momentum the Cavaliers had built over three years came to a screeching halt.

While the ending to the 2017 campaign was disappointing, Virginia believed it could bounce back in 2018. However, the Cavaliers knew the task would not be easy. Midfielder Tara Vittese and forward Pien Dicke — Virginia’s two leading scorers in 2017 — moved on and the Cavaliers had to desperately replenish their attacking corps for the 2018 season.

To the disappointment of the team, Virginia never got the firepower it needed — the Cavaliers mustered just 29 goals over the course of the season. No player recorded more than four goals during the season. For comparison, Vittese scored 25 the year prior. 

While Virginia only allowed 30 goals that year — putting together one of its best defensive seasons under Madison — the offense struggled to the point where the team couldn’t earn wins consistently. The Cavaliers finished the season with a disappointing 9-10 record and only two ACC wins before suffering yet another first-round defeat in the NCAA Tournament. 

Many were unsure if or how the team would bounce back in 2019. However, Madison got off to a good start by putting together a strong recruiting class — she needed freshmen that could make an immediate impact for the team. Accordingly, she recruited the talented pair in striker Laura Janssen and back Cato Geusgens from an unlikely source — the Netherlands. Just ten games into the season, the dynamic duo has been a breath of fresh air, with both players scoring four and three goals, respectively.

Janssen and Geusgens are just two members of the young nucleus Madison has developed to spark Virginia’s turnaround. Out of the 12 players that have recorded a point this season, eight are either freshmen or sophomores. 

The biggest breakout player for the Cavaliers has been sophomore midfielder Annie McDonough. After scoring just one goal and registering zero assists in 19 games last year, McDonough already has a goal and six assists in 12 games this season. McDonough has become a true playmaker in the middle of the field, setting up her teammates for goals and controlling the pace of the game.

Furthermore, the rise of junior striker Makayla Gallen and senior back Anzel Viljoen has been a driving factor of Virginia’s improved offense. Gallen has already netted six goals and Viljoen has four goals and six assists through just 12 games. Virginia’s goal scoring struggles had to be addressed and Gallen and Viljoen’s production has helped solve the problem in part.

That being said, Madison knows she doesn’t have elite scorers — like national team players Vitesse and Dicke — to rely on in 2019. Since another 88-goal season is unlikely, Madison has instead changed the identity of the team. 

With the addition of impact freshman and the emergence of key veterans, Virginia has seen a drastic improvement in its numbers. More importantly, Virginia has finally established a new direction. Madison has adapted to a new defensive mentality and has executed perfectly. The Cavaliers have allowed just 15 goals through 12 games, five of which came against the reigning national champion North Carolina. Virginia recorded three consecutive shutouts leading up to the North Carolina loss and have been stifling opponents all season.

Virginia’s personnel fits perfectly with the team’s defensive identity. In addition to shutting down opponents, Viljoen has added an offensive dynamic to her game, producing 14 points in 2019. Additionally, sophomore goalie Lauren Hausheer already has 39 saves and has a 1.06 goals against average. Together, the two players give Madison a critical defensive backbone.

So far in 2019, the Cavaliers have earned a 9-3 record, already tying their number of wins from last season with seven fewer games played. Their only losses came in a double-overtime thriller and against ranked teams including then-No. 4 ranked Maryland and top-ranked North Carolina. 

This 2019 Virginia field hockey team are nothing like the explosive 2017 team. However, Madison understands the talent at her disposal and shifted to a defensive-minded strategy. With a surprisingly strong recruiting class and a lockdown defense, the Cavaliers still have a national title in their sights. The pieces are in place and Madison has her team poised to make a run.

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