By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For UVa field hockey coach Michele Madison, it will be a comforting sight this weekend: a starting lineup that includes her top two players, juniors Michelle Vittese and Paige Selenski.
The Cavaliers open the season Saturday morning against Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia, then travel to University Park, Pa., for a Sunday date with Penn State.
As recently as 10 days ago, there was no guarantee that Selenski and Vittese would be available for any of Virginia’s first five games. As members of the U.S. national team, they were waiting to hear if a bureaucratic tug-of-war would prevent India from playing in the World Cup at Rosario, Argentina.
Had India not been allowed to compete, the United States would have taken India’s spot in the World Cup, and UVa would have been without Selenski and Vittese for the first part of the regular season. But India is in, and Selenski and Vittese have been back with their Virginia teammates for about a week.
“It’s bittersweet,” Vittese said. “It would have been an incredible experience to go to the World Cup, even to be training to go to that, even though it was by default. But to come here, too, is just awesome.”
Selenski said: “We were like, ‘We want to be [in Charlottesville] with our team.’ And our teammates were saying, ‘Well, we want you here for the games, but being at the World Cup would be an awesome experience.’ ”
The U.S. team, whose other players included Kelli Smith, Madison’s volunteer assistant at UVa, trained in Chula Vista, Calif., last month before leaving for Europe. The United States played four matches against Spain’s national team in Valencia and three matches against England in Bisham Abbey outside London.
Like Vittese, Selenski believes she’s a better player for the experience.
“It’s just so different out there,” Selenski said. “Everything’s really serious, and they focus more on your tactical skills, your basic skills … The intensity is just so much higher.”
Vittese said: “It’s a lot different. I think we’re kind of bringing a lot of professionalism into [UVa’s] program, which will help. We’re trying to make the work rate be so much higher.”
In 2009, Virginia finished 20-4 after losing to eventual champion North Carolina in the NCAA semifinals. In addition to Vittese and Selenski, who led the ‘Hoos with 62 points (27 goals and 8 assists), several key players are back from that team, among them seniors Kim Kastuk, Haley Carpenter, Shelly Edmonds and Taylor Swezey, junior Rachel Jennings and sophomore Tara Puffenberger.
Kastuk is UVa’s No. 1 goalie. Jennings and Puffenberger were named this summer to the U.S. under-21 junior national team.
“So the core is still strong, without a doubt,” Madison said. “It’s just a matter of how fast the rest come along.”
The core would be stronger had UVa not, for various reasons, lost three 2009 starters who had eligibility remaining: backs Charlotte van den Broek and Floor Vogels and midfielder Inga Stöckel. Vogels and van den Broek are from Netherlands, and Stöckel is German.
Newcomers include two gifted freshmen from Australia — Elly Buckley and Chloe Pendlebury — as well as first-years Hadley Bell and Carissa Vittese, Michelle’s sister.
The freshmen have “some pretty big shoes to fill,” Michelle Vittese said, “and I think they know that, and it’s great that they do know that, because their work rate is very high. They all try very, very hard.”
This is Madison’s fifth season at UVa, where her record is 58-31. The Cavaliers have reached the NCAA quarterfinals twice and the semifinals once during that span. They lost in the first round in 2007.
Her players, Madison said, know “what they want. Without a doubt, their goal is to win a national championship, whether they can do it this year or next year. They’ve been to the final four, and they want to go back. They want to have a chance to play for that national championship, and they’re not taking no for an answer.”
In the National Field Hockey Coaches Association’s preseason poll, the ‘Hoos are No. 3, behind No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Maryland.
“Right now we’re not at our best,” Selenski said, “but I feel like every game we’re just going to keep developing.”
Vittese said: “Last year was exactly the same thing. We had to work to be where we were [late in the season] … Each game is just going to put us in a better situation, I think.”