By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The men are in. For the UVa women’s lacrosse team, there’s no such certainty about the NCAA tournament.
A victory Saturday almost certainly would have secured a spot for the 11th-ranked Cavaliers in the 16-team field. But Virginia, after pulling even with 6:31 to play, faltered and lost 8-4 to fifth-ranked Northwestern at Klöckner Stadium.
And so UVa now will wait anxiously for the NCAA selections to be announced May 8.
“We’re 9-8, which obviously is not what we had expected or hoped for,” Virginia coach Julie Myers said Saturday afternoon. “But we’re above .500, which keeps us eligible [for the NCAAs]. Our schedule is the fourth-toughest in the country, which will help us. Losing three in a row will hurt us. So I think there’s pros and cons.”
The Cavaliers’ chances will improve if favorites such as Albany, Stanford and James Madison win their respective conference tournaments and advance to the NCAA tourney as automatic qualifiers.
If upsets occur around the country, UVa may well find itself excluded for the first time in Myers’ 16 seasons as head coach at her alma mater. The ‘Hoos have advanced to the NCAA title game seven times under Myers, winning in 2004.
The Cavaliers will practice this week, and hope for the best.
“We don’t really know what’s next, but we know we need to be prepared,” Myers said. “And again, we get another week together, so it’s one of those things like: Why not? Why wouldn’t we keep trying to move forward?”
UVa defender Liz Downs praised her team’s effort against Northwestern.
“We came together,” she said. “Everyone contributed. I think this was honestly one of the best games we’ve had. We cleaned up a lot of our stupid mistakes we’ve been making, our careless errors. And I think our defense was really on today. So even though we didn’t come out with a win, I think we made really positive strides as a team, which we’re going to try to keep going through the postseason.”
Defensive breakdowns had doomed Virginia in recent losses to North Carolina (16-5) and JMU (16-14). The Cavaliers were much better at that end against Northwestern, which came in averaging 14.9 goals. The Wildcats’ final two goals came in the last 66 seconds, after the outcome was effectively decided.
“I thought our defense did a great job,” Myers said. “We slid so much better today than we have been sliding, and just played a lot cleaner. If [the Wildcats] had seen recent film on us, they were probably thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going to be easy. We’ll be able to walk in.’ Our defense did a great job of really being hard to penetrate, and then [goalie] Kim [Kolarik] was able to make a bunch of key saves, too.”
Before the game, the four seniors in Myers’ program were recognized at Klöckner: Downs, Molly McClintic, Boyd Vicars and Marghi Walters. (A fifth member of that class, Ainsley Baker, redshirted in 2008 and will return next year.)
By contrast, UVa’s roster includes 11 freshmen. The Cavaliers have a large, talented junior class, but Downs said she believes “the balance of older to younger definitely changes the vibe of the team. The first-years are amazing, they’re upbeat and positive, but having those players on the field that can really take the ball and make things happen with it, that leadership hasn’t been as obvious this year as it has in the past.”
Almost a year has passed since the death of Yeardley Love, a senior on the 2010 team, rocked the UVa women’s program. How much that tragedy continues to affect her team, Myers said, is difficult to gauge.
“I would say we’ve all obviously had a life experience that nobody could have accounted for, and nobody knew how to really totally handle, I think,” Myers said. “All in all, we’re doing a great job with it, but certainly Yeardley’s on our mind and in our heart, and maybe when we need a little focus, we don’t have it. Maybe it’s Yeardley; maybe it’s just that we’re still trying to rebound. But clearly we’re a team that needs to be able to get through some hurdles, keep things in our heart and still be able to move forward.”