Virginia field hockey made history as it stepped onto Nameless Field on Sept. 29, 1973, marking the first intercollegiate varsity sporting match played by female Virginia students. Today, as Virginia field hockey takes on its fiftieth season, Coach Michele Madison continues to push expectations for NCAA field hockey.
As a member of the National Field Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame and a former assistant coach of the U.S. National Team and the Olympic Team, Madison has led the Virginia field hockey program for the past 17 seasons. During this time, she secured more wins than any other Virginia field hockey coach. Thirteen of those 17 seasons ended with NCAA Tournament appearances, and she led the program to its first ACC Championship in 2016.
Madison’s passion for field hockey started when she was a player at Rutgers University, but her love for coaching developed in a surprising fashion.
“I wanted to be a teacher my whole life and somehow got roped into coaching,” Madison said. “One time I coached a deaf team at a camp and I was able to communicate with them and something intrigued me about that, just getting people to be able to communicate just a message.”
Before being hired at Virginia in 2006, Madison was head coach at Temple from 1989 to 1992 and Michigan State from 1993 to 2005, where she led the Spartans to their first No. 1 ranking and NCAA Final Four appearance.
“The University of Virginia is fortunate to have attracted a head field hockey coach of the caliber of Michele Madison,” former director of athletics Craig Littlepage said at the time of her hiring. “She has coached successfully at the national and international levels, she’s won championships and she’s been a leader in the sport throughout her career.”
Throughout her tenures at these universities, Madison brought three Division I programs to NCAA Tournament appearances. She is the only coach in Division I history to have earned this accolade, demonstrating inimitable consistency and unrivaled talent in such a competitive position.
“For some reason, I like the challenge of taking over a struggling program,” Madison said. “Michigan State was the longest turnaround, but eventually we did it there too.”
It seems that Madison’s key to success no matter the school or team is focusing on the development of the individual player first, both as an athlete and a person, before culminating the team as a whole.
In fact, three four-time All-Americans — Tara Vittese, Paige Selenki and Elly Buckley — have played under Madison during her tenure at Virginia, and 11 total Cavaliers have been granted the honor with her guidance. Selenki and Michelle Vittese, another of Madison’s All-Americans, played in the 2012 Pan-American games, where they helped Team USA win the gold medal. The pair also represented the United States in the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Vittese and Carissa Vittese returned to the Blue Turf Field in Charlottesville this season, not as a part of the Virginia squad, but rather as head and assistant coaches, respectively, of Temple.
“I was very proud, actually,” Madison said. “To see them there and to see what they accomplished with Temple already. And they'll do a great job because they bring a great balance of energy and excitement.”
It is no surprise that Madison’s athletes have seen such success on both the world stage and in the collegiate coaching arena with how Madison is able to develop her players.
“It's just getting people to believe in themselves and getting people to believe that they're part of something bigger than they are,” she said. “If they can relate and really believe that about themselves, then they just explode.”
Open communication and leadership are crucial pillars in Madison’s coaching style, said graduate student midfielder Annie McDonough, who has played for Madison for five years and has been voted co-captain for the last two.
“We've developed a relationship where I'm comfortable saying whatever I want, even if it's not something she's happy to hear,” McDonough said. “And that's something [the coaching staff] has emphasized so much throughout my five years.”
McDonough also spoke on Madison’s development of leaders, emphasizing that Madison understands the importance of every player being vested with significant responsibility.
“Everyone on the team is a leader in their own way, whether it's on the field or they're just leading the team on the sideline,” McDonough said.
When looking at Madison’s long list of accolades as head coach, it seems like the only award missing from her figurative and literal trophy case is the elusive NCAA championship. However, with the Cavaliers currently on a six-game winning streak and their impressive freshman class, a title does not seem too far off.