By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Games against the teams ranked Nos. 2 and 4 nationally come later this month. For now, though, the third-ranked UVa field hockey team has another target, and it’s a big one.
No. 1 Maryland, the defending NCAA champion.
The ACC rivals meet at 4 p.m. Friday in College Park, Md. Virginia, off to its best start in 30 years, is 1-0 in the conference and 11-0 overall. The Terrapins are 2-0, 11-0.
As much as Cavaliers coach Michele Madison might want her players to consider this just another game, she knows better.
“It’s huge,” Madison said. “Anytime you have a chance to play the defending national champion, there’s a lot at stake. It’s a measuring stick for where we are at this point.
“We can’t win the national championship on Friday, but we can definitely see where we are relative to the No. 1 team in the country.”
A season ago, Maryland beat Wake Forest for the NCAA title. The Wahoos lost in the NCAA quarterfinals, but little separated them and the Terps.
UVa and Maryland met twice in 2008, and each game went to overtime. The Terrapins prevailed 4-3 during the regular season and 3-2 in the ACC tournament.
“Anytime you get to overtime, you realize you had an opportunity to win it,” Madison said. “The first one was more a situation where we had the lead. At the end of the game, they pulled their goalie, and they were able to get a goal at the end to force it into overtime.
“So we learned from that situation. And then the ACC [tourney] game, it was just down to the wire. It was a great game.”
This is Madison’s fourth team at UVa. Her first finished 14-8, her second 11-10 and her third 14-9.
Talented freshmen Tara Puffenberger and Charlotte van den Broek, along with junior goalkeeper Kim Kastuk, a transfer from Boston University, have meshed well with a veteran core led by sophomore Paige Selenski and seniors Lauren Elstein and Traci Ragukas.
“If we compare ourselves to ourselves, we’re definitely better [than in 2008],” Madison said Thursday.
“I think our defense has definitely been fortified and strengthened — not that you would know it from yesterday’s game,” Madison said, referring to a 4-3 win at Richmond. “But I think the [players’] focus on Maryland has a lot to do with that result.”
The lapses against Richmond aside, Madison has found much to like about this group of players.
“Off the field, how they enjoy themselves so much,” she said. “They really do have a special bond. They like being around each other. You have to make them get up from the dinner table, ‘Come on, we have to go, we have to go.’ So that’s a good thing.
“On the field, when the attack’s firing on all cylinders, it’s just beautiful hockey. We have a high work rate.”
Virginia hosts No. 4 Wake on Oct. 11 and No. 2 North Carolina on Oct. 17. UVa visits Wake on Oct. 24.
The ACC tournament will be played Nov. 5 to 8 in Charlottesville.