By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Michele Madison can’t take credit for discovering Lauren Elstein. When Elstein committed to play field hockey at UVa, the team’s coach was Jessica Wilk.
But Madison, after replacing Wilk in January 2006, showed foresight in making sure Elstein knew she was still wanted at Virginia. Madison was nudged in that direction by Elstein’s coach at Stafford High in Fredericksburg, who kept calling the UVa field hockey office to say, “You don’t want to miss this kid. You don’t want to miss this kid.”
Madison is glad she listened. Elstein, a fourth-year who arrived at UVa as an Echols Scholar, embodies what Madison wants her program to represent.
Elstein, 21, lives on the Lawn. She’ll earn a bachelor’s degree in economics next spring. She minors in Spanish. She mentors other student-athletes at UVa. She volunteers on community-service projects and, with Athetes in Action, leads Bible study.
She’s enrolled in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, from which she will receive a master’s in 2011. She interned at Nike’s world headquarters in Oregon this summer.
She occasionally sleeps, too.
“She just stands for everything that’s right, and she does the right thing,” Madison said recently in her University Hall office. “I don’t think she’s ever broken a team rule, not even for being late. Academically she’s sound. All the opportunities fall into her lap because of what she has done to earn it.”
Madison came to UVa from Michigan State, where she twice led her team to the NCAA tournament semifinals. At Virginia, she took over a program that hadn’t had a winning season since 2001.
When Madison arrived, the Cavaliers had a reputation as a party team. Many of her players lacked discipline, she recalled, and were “not committed to excellence.”
Elstein helped Madison change the program’s culture. Early on, Madison said, that made Elstein something of an “outcast, because she was willing to stand alone and do the right thing.”
Such praise makes Elstein uncomfortable, and she downplays her role in fostering a different mindset among UVa field hockey players.
“I didn’t try to stand out,” Elstein said. “Michele always says that you don’t always lead by what you say, you lead by what you do, and so maybe in that sense, by doing something at times or by not doing something at times, that might have said more.
“I just tried to do the right thing, I tried to help people when they needed it, and I tried to take hockey seriously. To me it’s not just, ‘Hey, we’re here to have some fun and maybe play some hockey too.'”
Madison’s goal is to win a national championship at UVa, and she’s never hesitated to say that publicly. Elstein bought in immediately.
“In order to be the best, you have to make the best decisions, and I think sometimes before she got here it was a little more relaxed in that area, and she certainly has made it stricter,” Elstein said. “But if we have high expectations as a team, that means certain sacrifices in the college world, and I think that culture has strengthened and it has grown as we’ve become a better and a stronger team.”
The team’s veterans eventually embraced their new coach’s philosophy, but “it’s a culture change, and it takes time,” Madison said. “We had issues right away in preseason [in 2006] with the team socializing at times they shouldn’t.
“And then every semester it got less and less and less and less. So now it’s almost non-existent. There’s a right time and place to do everything, and that’s what we try to get them to understand. You just have to set the boundaries, and that’s what they were missing.”
These are heady times for UVa field hockey. The Wahoos are 8-0 and ranked No. 4 nationally. Elstein plays an important role, not only as a team captain, but as a a defender.
“Whatever she doesn’t have in terms of her hockey development, because she picked up the game so late, she makes up for it in work ethic and attention to detail,” Madison said. “She knows the game plan, she knows what we’re trying to do, she takes responsibility, and she’s accountable for it all.”
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First at Michigan State and now at UVa, Madison has encouraged her players to live with other students not affiliated with the field hockey team. In fact, she has a rule that only two players can live together off Grounds each academic year.
“Michele really likes that we become friends with people outside of field hockey,” Elstein said. “She likes that we have some involvement within the University community and develop a desire to be a part of UVa and not just athletics.
“That’s one of the things that I’ve really appreciated about her. When I’ve really shown an interest or succeeded outside of field hockey, she’s been very encouraging about it. She really wants her players to develop as people, not just as players, and that seems really unusual from what I’ve seen in the collegiate coaching world.”
Elstein, who was valedictorian as a Stafford High senior, is one of the two student-athletes living on the Lawn this academic year. The other is Megan Durkee, a middle-distance runner in track and cross country.
“She’s actually a good friend of mine, so that worked out really well,” Elstein said. “She’s also an econ major, and we studied abroad together in Spain one summer.”
Elstein’s sister attended Virginia Tech, but the Hokies don’t have a field hockey team. Anyway, Elstein wanted to be a ‘Hoo, and her dream didn’t change when Wilk stepped down as coach.
“I was really determined to make Virginia work,” Elstein said, “because the bottom line is, I obviously wanted to play field hockey, but if something were to happen and I couldn’t play, I wanted to be at a school that I loved, and I didn’t want to necessarily go across the country or go to a school just for the hockey.”
Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that Elstein ended up on the Lawn.
It’s kind “of the face of the University in a lot of ways, and so I think generally the people who live there have a deep appreciation for UVa, for its traditions, for its culture,” Elstein said. “And so I think beyond being really involved and having a good GPA, they also want the community to be strong people who are committed to UVa and really love it here.”
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Most days begin around 8 a.m. for Elstein. She’d rather sleep till 10, but her schedule doesn’t allow her that luxury. In addition to field hockey and school, she devotes untold hours to the Student Athlete Mentor program (SAMS) and Athletes in Action and various community-service projects.
“I just really love being involved,” said Elstein, who sees herself working at a non-profit one day, perhaps in Central or South America. “I like being around people. I just like giving back, and it also develops me as a person.”
It’s not always easy, she acknowledged, to juggle all of her commitments.
“You definitely just have to learn time management and plan things out,” Elstein said. “Sometimes your social life is actually meetings and organizations and that sort of thing. That’s OK.”
She stayed busy in high school, too. And at UVa, she’s stayed true to herself.
“I’ve always just kind of had my perception of my own values and my own identity,” Elstein said. “I think that’s a function of my parents and how awesome they are, and I haven’t really let college change those in a negative way.
“I think there’s a lot of things in college for you to come and get caught up in. I think I was just really determined to find my right niche here, the one that fits for me, instead of changing myself to fit others.”