By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — They weren’t scared to articulate their goal. UVa’s field hockey players and coaches believed the team could contend for an NCAA title this year, and they didn’t hesitate to say so.
Kim Kastuk learned that after transferring to Virginia from Boston University, where she’d been the America East Conference’s goalkeeper of the year in 2008.
At one of her first meetings with UVa coach Michele Madison, Kastuk recalled this week, “Michele mentioned how we have the opportunity to win a national championship and that’s the type of team that I’ll be coming into.
“It was definitely in the front of my mind, that this is what we want to achieve, but the fact that we actually did it, and I’m actually going to the final four, is just unbelievable. It’s a dream come true, and I kind of feel like I’m dreaming. It’s a little surreal, to be honest.”
In their fourth season under Madison, the Cavaliers have reached the NCAA semifinals for the first time since 1998. Friday at 4:30 p.m., second-seeded UVa (20-3) meets No. 3 seed North Carolina (18-2) at Wake Forest’s Kentner Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The 2 p.m. semifinal matches top-seeded Maryland (22-0) and fourth-seeded Princeton (16-2). The NCAA title game is noon Sunday at the same site.
The ACC tournament was held at University Hall Turf Field, and the Wahoos advanced to the championship game, in which they lost to Maryland in overtime. They played their first two games in the NCAAs there as well. Not since Oct. 24, in fact, has UVa played away from Charlottesville.
“Being home is phenomenal, and the fan base was just unbelievable,” Madison said. “The support for the team during both tournaments had a lot to do with why we’re at the final four. So, do I wish it were in Charlottesville? Absolutely. But that’s one of those things we can’t control, so we just have to go play.”
That the final four is at Kentner Stadium strikes the Cavaliers as a good omen. That’s where they played Oct. 24, beating Wake Forest 2-0.
Still, playing away from home will seem strange at first, UVa sophomore Rachel Jennings acknowledged.
“Obviously we have a really huge fan base here and great support, and we’re used to the field. We practice on it every day,” Jennings said Tuesday at the Turf Field. “But I really have faith in my team that we can carry our play here to Wake, and the last time we played at Wake, we had one of our best games of the season, so that’s always a good feeling.”
This experience is new to her players, but not to Madison, who guided Michigan State to the final four in 2002 and ’04. She’s also a member of the NCAA’s national committee for the sport.
“For the last two years I had to go to the final four and observe the other coaches, and I saw coaches who totally get hung up on the things that aren’t important,” Madison said. “They waste so much energy on the little problems, the little distractions. I said to myself, ‘I’m not reacting to anything. All I care about is the hockey. Everyone else has to take care of everything else.'”
Virginia and UNC have split their two meetings this season. The Tar Heels won 2-1 in overtime Oct. 17. The ‘Hoos avenged that loss in the ACC semifinals, edging Carolina 1-0 on the same field.
UVa has only two seniors — Lauren Elstein and Traci Ragukas — and more final four appearances seem likely for Madison’s program. Still, her players don’t seem to have a we’re-just-happy-to-be-here mindset.
“I was actually just talking to my roommate, Michelle Vittese, about this,” said Jennings, a triplet whose sister Erin plays for Princeton.
“Our aspirations are to win a national championship, and you’ve got to put that first. Obviously it’s really exciting to be in the final four, but we have higher expectations than just making an appearance at the final four. I think we really just want to bring home the gold and win it all.”
A season ago, UVa finished 14-9 after losing to Wake in the NCAA quarterfinals. That the ‘Hoos cleared their second-round hurdle this year shocked no one associated with the program.
“To actually get there, of course, is very difficult, especially with the young group that we have,” Madison said. “But we were hungry from last year, and we added even more talent and a strong goalkeeper, so we knew it was a realistic possibility.”
Jennings said: “I think that was a realistic goal of ours, and I don’t think anyone’s too surprised by it.”