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By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The opener is still more than three weeks away, but this is already shaping up as an unusual season for UVa field hockey coach Michele Madison.

Her two best players are taking leaves of absence from the University in 2011-12. One of her assistant coaches is on maternity leave. Another assistant is new to the program. Most of Madison’s players this season will be freshmen and sophomores.

Even the team’s home, University Hall Turf Field, has a new look. Gone is the green field, replaced by a blue surface.

“We’ve just had a lot of change,” Madison said Monday morning in her U-Hall office, “so everything is new. New, to me, is an opportunity to do it differently or try new things, and it gives a breath of fresh air, too. I have to look at it positively, because there is a lot of talent, and it’s a talented coaching staff. Time is what we’ll need to become a team.”

The Cavaliers are coming off a season in which they went 18-4 and advanced to the NCAA semifinals for the second straight year. The brightest stars on that team were first-team All-Americans Paige Selenski and Michelle Vittese, each of whom has a season of college eligibility left.

They’ll use them in 2012. Selenski and Vittese are off training with the U.S. national team and hope to play at the Olympic Games in London next summer.

“We thought 2011 would be our payoff year,” said Madison, who’s heading into her sixth season at Virginia. “Now we have to look more to 2012.”

The Wahoos start practice Aug. 10. Without Selenski and Vittese, Madison said, “We became a rebuilding team all of the sudden. We went from having a very experienced team, with a very clear vision of what was possible and a belief that it could happen, to a team with a lot of youth and a lot of youthful talent.”

In 2009, the ‘Hoos went 20-4 and reached the NCAA final four for the first time in 11 years. Is a third straight trip to the national semifinals a realistic goal?

“It depends just how fast everyone acclimates and we become a team,” Madison said. “The talent is definitely there. The final four is our expectation for the program anyway, so we’re always building a team for that. That belief and confidence will come more as we grow as a team.

“Our goal, I think, would be to make it to the [NCAA] tournament, and we’ll see what we can do once we get there.”

UVa will have only three seniors this season: Rachel Jennings, Alexandra Jahnle and goalkeeper Adrienne Ostroff. With Selenski (62 points) gone, sophomore forward Elly Buckley (49) is the team’s top returning scorer.

Buckley, a third-team All-American in 2010, is one of three Australians on the team. The others are classmate Chloe Pendlebury, a starting back last season, and freshman forward Jessica White.

“They made a really smooth transition,” Madison said of Buckley and Pendlebury, and UVa is hoping for a similar contribution from its newest Aussie this fall.

White is part of a first-year class that Madison considers as talented as any group she’s recruited. Its other members are Maddie DeCerbo, Jenny Johnstone, Kelsey LeBlanc, Rachel Sumfest and Jess Orrett.

“All of them conceivably could get minutes right away,” Madison said.

The Cavaliers intensified their pursuit of White and Orrett once it became clear that Selenski and Vittese were likely to spend the 2010-11 academic year with the U.S. national team.

Johnstone is from Scotland. Orrett is from England, as is Michael Boal, UVa’s new assistant coach. Boal, a JMU assistant in 2010, takes over for Iñako Puzo, who left Virginia to become head coach at Miami University in Ohio.

Another new staff member is Jun Kentwell, who’ll be helping Madison until assistant coach Alexandra Street returns from maternity leave late next month. Kentwell is a former player on China’s national team and an Olympic umpire.

There will be one Vittesse on the team this season. Michelle’s sister Carissa is part of a sophomore class that also includes Buckley, Pendlebury, Katie Robinson and Hadley Bell.

UVa opens the season Aug. 26 at home against VCU. Much must be done before the Cavaliers take the field that evening.

“We’re basically starting over,” Madison said. “I’ll have to depend a lot on Rachel and Adrienne and Alex, the seniors and the juniors, to really help teach the young kids. They know the system. They know what we do.”

BLUES POWER: Madison said she hopes the U.S. national team will spend some time training in Charlottesville between now and the 2012 Olympics.

The new blue surface on the U-Hall Turf Field is similar to the one that’s already in place in London.

Of the change from green to blue, Madison said, “It’s really for contrast and improving visibility for the fans, so they can see the ball better. [The former surface] was 10 years old, and it was bald. It played fast, which was nice, but it picked up too much speed.”

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