By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In NCAA field hockey, the center of the universe for the next few days will be the University Hall Turf Field.
That’s the site of the six-team ACC tournament, which starts Thursday with two first-round games. No. 4 seed Wake Forest meets No. 5 seed Boston College at 1 p.m., and third-seeded UVa and sixth-seeded Duke will follow at 3:30 p.m.
Rounding out the field are top-seeded Maryland and No. 2 seed North Carolina, which drew first-round byes.
To call this an elite event would be understating things. In the latest National Field Hockey Coaches Association poll, Maryland is ranked No. 1, UNC is No. 2, Virginia is No. 3, Wake is No. 6, BC is No. 9 and Duke is No. 14.
Given that, the Cavaliers (16-2) couldn’t be happier about playing in familiar surroundings.
“Anytime you can get the slightest edge, even if it’s 1 percent, when you’re playing against all the top teams in the country, you gotta try,” UVa coach Michele Madison said.
“The fans have been phenomenal all year, and we just need them to pack the stands again. The kids love to play at home and on their home field.”
The Wahoos are 8-1 at home this season, the loss coming Oct. 17 in overtime to UNC. The other defeat was to Maryland, Oct. 2 in College Park.
“I feel like every time we play at home, we play really well,” said sophomore forward Paige Selenski, the team’s leading scorer with 51 points — 34 more than the next Cavalier, sophomore midfielder Inga Stockel.
The ‘Hoos are assured a spot in the 16-team NCAA tournament. Four teams are awarded regionals in that tourney, but there’s no guarantee that three of them will be from the ACC, the national rankings notwithstanding.
For the Cavaliers to play at home in the NCAAs, they probably need to win at least twice in the ACC tourney. The UVa-Duke winner will face UNC in the semifinals Friday.
Much is at stake for Virginia in this tournament, then, and the players realize as much.
“It’s there,” senior Lauren Elstein said. “We’re aware of it, but we’re not going to play any different.”
Virginia and Duke are meeting for the second time in less than a week. The Cavaliers rallied to beat the Blue Devils 2-1 on Saturday at the U-Hall Turf Field.
Duke enters at 9-9. If the Devils lose Thursday, their sub-.500 record would make them ineligible for the NCAA tournament.
“They have no hopes if they don’t beat us, so they’re coming with barrels loaded,” Madison said.
Elstein and Selenski admit they’d love a rematch with the Tar Heels. But they know they have to guard against overlooking Duke. They remember what happened early in the fall.
Two days before the Wahoos’ showdown with Maryland, they struggled to win 4-3 at Richmond.
“I think we’ve been caught [looking ahead] one or two times, and paid for it,” Elstein said. “We’ve learned, and we’ve matured. We won’t make that mistake again. We gotta beat Duke to get another shot at Carolina.”
This is Madison’s fourth — and best — team at UVa, and her only seniors are Elstein and Traci Ragukas.
“We haven’t peaked yet, and I guess that’s a good thing,” Madison said, “that we’ve played that well and we haven’t played our best hockey consistently for a whole game yet.”