By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Field hockey teams representing Michigan State, Delaware, Richmond and UVa convened at University Hall Turf Field on Saturday.
Guess which one felt most at home?
“I just love our field,” Virginia’s Traci Ragukas said.
As a reward for a stellar regular season and a strong ACC tournament, the Cavaliers were seeded No. 2 and awarded a regional in the 16-team NCAA tourney.
The Wahoos, whose only seniors are Ragukas and Lauren Elstein, opened the NCAAs at the U-Hall Turf Field on Saturday, and they’ll play there again Sunday.
“We love playing at home,” fourth-year coach Michele Madison said after UVa’s 3-0 win over UR.
“It’s an advantage. I think at first it doesn’t feel like it, but today when I was walking out the field, I thought, ‘Wow, it must be nice for a team to play on their field.’
“It just gives you a little sense of, ‘This is ours, this is our home, and no one’s coming in there to take it away from us. We’re going to go after it.'”
In beating the Spiders (14-9) for the second time this season, UVa (19-3) tied its school record for victories in a season. The ‘Hoos can break that mark Sunday at 2 p.m., when they face Michigan State (18-3) in a second-round game.
The Cavaliers blanked the Spartans 3-0 on Sept. 20 at the Turf Field. Another win over MSU would send UVa to the NCAA semifinals for the first time since 1998.
“It’d be great,” Ragukas said. “It’s been our goal since Lauren and I got here, and every year it just seems like it’s right there, and we just couldn’t grab onto it. This year we’re going to go out there and give it everything we have, no matter what.”
UVa dominated the first half Saturday, outshooting UR 14-1, but neither team scored. Spiders goalkeeper Jackie Raithel had six saves in the first 35 minutes.
“I don’t think there was too much of an air of frustration during halftime,” Elstein said. “In one sense, it’s like, ‘Let’s just put it in.’ But we always realize that you just gotta keep shooting, and eventually it’ll fall in the goal.
“So we just realized that we’ve got to keep doing what we were doing, but with a little more determination and a little more passing around the keeper. She’s a good keeper.”
Madison wasn’t pleased that her team had nothing to show for its first-half supremacy, but “wow, how we were playing attack, and possessing the ball and moving the ball around, was just phenomenal,” she said. “We just told [the players], ‘If you keep doing that, we’re going to get the shots. Throw some garbage in there, and try to get corners, because they were packing it in. Try to move around to the outsides of the circle.’ So we were able to do that.”
The breakthrough came about three minutes into the second half, when Ragukas passed to freshman Tara Puffenberger for the game’s first goal.
Ragukas scored herself, off an assist from sophomore Inga Stöckel, about nine minutes later. Elstein capped the scoring with about 18 minutes left, redirecting a long pass from Stöckel past Raithel.
The goal was the first of the season for Elstein, who’s playing back this year.
“I just kind of looked up and saw Inga, and whenever she’s around the 25 and outside, she’s looking to fire it in,” Elstein said. “And so it was just one of those where you say, ‘I need to be ready, I need to be ready, stick down, stick down,’ and just try to be in the location that it looked like she was looking. It just happened to work out really well.”
Madison coached for 13 seasons at Michigan State before leaving for UVa. There’s no question where her allegiance lies now, however, and she’s eager to make it back to the final four. She guided the Spartans to the NCAA semifinals in 2002 and ’04.
“It’s everything you work for,” Madison said.