With four games under its belt in the 2023 season, No. 6 Virginia field hockey looks primed to take a leap forward, even as the standard for the program is remarkably high. Though the Cavaliers (3-1, 0-0 ACC) regularly field a top 10 squad that dominates in the regular season, postseason woes have defined their recent years. Their main opposition has come in the form of conference rival and reigning NCAA Champions No. 2 North Carolina. The Tar Heels (3-1, 0-0 ACC) have stifled Virginia’s ACC Championship aspirations four times in the past six seasons. However, this year the Cavaliers have shown that they have a chance to change the narrative and reclaim the conference title for the first time since 2016 — and maybe go further still.
The group has shown resilience and grit against a highly competitive slate in their first four games. At their best, they look like ACC and NCAA title contenders. The opening gauntlet has included statement wins over No. 11 Penn State, No. 10 St. Joseph’s and a blowout of unranked Temple. The only blemish on the record is a hard-fought 3-1 home loss to undefeated No. 9 Liberty. The Flames (4-0, 0-0 C-USA) exclusively scored on penalty corners and trailed Virginia in total shots 13-9.
North Carolina’s first four games look remarkably similar to Virginia’s. Also sitting at 3-1, they have knocked off elite competition, narrowly defeating No. 8 Michigan, No. 15 Princeton and routing unranked Penn. The Tar Heels ran into trouble against newly-crowned No. 1 Iowa, falling in an overtime duel. With a limited sample size, the teams seem to be on somewhat equal footing. However, there is reason to believe Coach Michele Madison will finally be able to disrupt what has become the status quo atop the ACC when the postseason rolls around.
Entering the 2023 season, the Cavaliers narrowly finished second in the Preseason ACC Coaches Poll, receiving three first-place votes to North Carolina’s four. Earning 42 total points to the Tar Heels’ 45, those closest to the action agree that the competition for the top of the conference will be neck and neck. However, the Cavaliers have an advantage when it comes to depth and coaching experience.
Madison worked over the offseason to secure one of the strongest rosters of her entire tenure. She bolstered the depth chart with a balance of game-ready freshmen and a pair of potent graduate transfers while returning 18 experienced players from a highly competitive 2022 squad.
Of the returners, sophomore midfielder Daniela Mendez-Trendler and junior defender Jans Croon have been key to the team’s success this year. A preseason All-ACC pick, Mendez-Trendler has lived up to the expectations, leading Virginia with eight points on three goals and two assists. A remarkable 12 out of her 14 shots have been on target. Croon has been reliably durable on the back line, playing all 240 minutes across four games.
Madison enters her 18th year as head coach of the program, with over 400 wins under her belt. Her coaching has shined alongside the deep roster construction so far. The Cavaliers have yet to be shut out against stiff competition and will only improve as chemistry develops. The victory over the Nittany Lions (2-2, 0-0 Big 10) featured a coaching clinic, with key halftime adjustments from Madison making the difference. Even in the loss to Liberty, the Cavaliers adjusted and put together a strong final quarter. Croon and the defense shined against a high-octane Hawks (3-1, 0-0 A10) offense, limiting them to a single goal. Meanwhile, the win over the Owls (2-2, 0-0 Big East) showed the offense firing on all cylinders — eight players contributed either a goal or an assist. Mendez-Trendler scored twice.
Though the split preseason poll votes are a testament to the strength of Madison’s coaching pedigree and talented roster, a major shakeup at North Carolina has the potential to upend the hierarchy of the conference. After 42 seasons at the helm, Tar Heel coaching legend Karen Shelton has retired. Her successor comes in the form of a recently graduated player, 23-year-old Erin Matson.
Matson, a North Carolina legend in her own right, dominated in her time playing for the Tar Heels. While she undoubtedly brings skill and a fresh perspective to the program, Shelton’s decades of wisdom will be sorely missed in Chapel Hill. While North Carolina experiences turnover at the top of the chain, the Cavaliers have consistency and experience from top to bottom, which has benefited them greatly in the early bouts of a challenging season.
While Virginia has a ways to go before facing the Tar Heels, they have the benefit of hosting them in Charlottesville on senior day just 11 days before the ACC Tournament in October. Also convenient to the Cavaliers is the site of the ACC Tournament — Turf Field.
With an already impressive resume, a deep roster at each position group, home-field advantage and Madison’s coaching pedigree, this year is shaping up to be the best chance for Virginia to finally expel its postseason demons. Winning the conference after repeated setbacks could set the stage for a deep NCAA Tournament run as a high seed. Though there is plenty of season left, keep an eye on Turf Field come late fall — history could be made.