Oct. 7, 2011

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — After Michele Madison was hired at UVa, one of her first tasks as a recruiter was to contact the Jennings triplets of Macungie, Pa., with whom she was familiar. As Michigan State’s field hockey coach, Madison had hoped to lure all three to East Lansing.

To the question she posed now to the Jennings girls — Are you interested in playing together at UVa? — Madison received an unequivocal answer.

“They said, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” she recalled with a laugh.

It had nothing to do with Madison or Virginia. For years, the sisters’ plan had been to attend different colleges, and sure enough, Tara ended up at Duke, Erin at Princeton and Rachel at UVa.

“We had been with each other 24/7 through our lives,” Rachel said this week. “Same teams, same bedroom, three beds in one room. We were just with each other constantly, so I think, especially when it came time to [choose] schools, we were ready to move on. I think that was a huge part of becoming individuals for us, and I really think we made the right decision.”

In the summer of 2010, the triplets shared an apartment in Charlottesville, and they’ve seen each periodically each fall, too. During Rachel’s college career, she has faced Tara six times and Erin twice on the field hockey field. The Cavaliers are 8-0 in those games, to Rachel’s delight.

“It’s funny, because you have the basic rivalries,” she said. “You have us against UNC, us against Maryland. But to me, it’s almost equivalent to that when I play my sisters. I want to beat them just as much as when I play UNC, as much as when I play Maryland. I want to win.”

Jennings, one of Virginia’s co-captains for the second straight year, gets an opportunity to extend her unbeaten streak Friday night in New Jersey. At 7 o’clock, UVa (6-7) plays at Princeton (4-5), where the crowd will include the triplets’ parents.

Their daughters’ schedules keep Beth and John Jennings busy. They’re expected to be in Charlottesville on Oct. 29, when Virginia closes the regular season against Duke at the University Hall Turf Field.

“They come down to all the matches that we play against each other, in their multi-colored get-ups,” Rachel said, smiling.

When the Wahoos take on the Blue Devils, for example, her father might wear a “Duke blue shirt and orange hat, and then my mom will wear the Virginia shirt and the Duke hat,” Jennings said. “They try to keep it as balanced as possible.”

The triplets, born April 27, 1990, have two older brothers, John and Jason. The sisters starred at Emmaus High, a perennial power in field hockey, and everywhere fans looked on the field, it seemed, there was a Jennings.

“I played center back, Tara played center mid, and Erin played center striker,” Rachel recalled.

Tara and Erin are now midfielders. Rachel is a defender for the Cavaliers, and a superb one. UVa has played 82 games since she enrolled in 2008, and Jennings has started every one of them.

She made the All-South Region first team as a junior. Jennings, an English major, is also a stellar student who has been named to the ACC’s honor roll every year. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she plans to enroll in a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program to complete her requirements for medical school.

“Rachel definitely has goals and dreams in life,” Madison said. “It’s always awesome to coach a player with dreams, and she works hard for it. She’s able to separate hockey from her academic goals.”

Jennings, who did an internship at Duke’s hospital this summer, would not be the first doctor in her family. Her mother is a retired general surgeon, and her father is a reconstructive plastic surgeon. Also, Jennings’ oldest brother attends medical school at Temple, and Tara is pre-med at Duke. (Erin is interested in marketing and advertising.)

If all goes according to her plan, Jennings hopes to study medicine at Columbia, Duke, Georgetown or UVa. Would she consider attending the same med school as Tara?

“Yeah, I think so,” Jennings said. “I think actually being apart has brought us more together in a sense. I think we’d be happy to do something like that.”

As for field hockey, Jennings said, “I think this is going to be my last hurrah here. I’m ready to move on with my life. Obviously field hockey’s been a huge part of it and I love the sport, but I think it’s time to move on for me.”

In 2009 and ’10, Jennings played on teams that advanced to the NCAA semifinals. If her classmates Paige Selenski and Michelle Vittese had returned to the University this fall, another trip to the final four might be likely for the ‘Hoos. But Selenski and Vittese are playing for the U.S. national team, and without them UVa has struggled.

“It’s obviously been very hard,” Jennings said, “but this season has brought out something so different. That’s the way life is. You have to readjust, and I think that’s the beauty in it: that I get this opportunity to be part of a team that I never expected I was going to and maybe bring something great out of it.

“It’s an exciting opportunity. There’s obviously some negatives — we’re not doing as well as we want — but I think if we do something great, it’s going to be that much better.”

Vittese and Selenski, who plan to return to UVa and compete as fifth-year seniors in 2012, were more than teammates to Jennings.

“I lived with Michelle for three years, and both of them were my best friends,” Jennings said. “It’s been a little tough readjusting without them, not only in field hockey, but just life in general, life in school. But once again, I’m kind of just embracing the change. It’s been an interesting senior year, but I think it surprised me a little bit how much I’m enjoying it, the new scene and the new atmosphere, because it does change a lot when people leave.”

To see the Cavaliers struggle has not been easy for Vittese or Selenski, Jennings said. They recently flew from San Diego, where they’re training, to watch UVa take on Boston College in Charlottesville.

The Eagles won in double overtime, and afterward “Paige cried in the stands,” Jennings said. “And this girl, I’ve never seen her cry over anything, and you see her in the stands crying and you think, ‘They want to be here so bad. They wish they could help in any way possible.’ But they have a lot to look forward to out there. They have such big dreams ahead of them.”

Since the loss to BC, UVa has gone 2-1, and “I think we’re definitely on the rise,” Jennings said.

Freshmen and sophomores dominate the roster, and the ‘Hoos must win more than they lose over the next month to be considered for the NCAAs. For seniors such as Jennings, this has not been the season they envisioned, but “it’s not over,” Madison said, “and they can still make something happen. They’ve been challenged, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Jennings agreed.

“There have definitely been times where I’ve had my breaking point, and I think I learned a lot from that,” she said. “I think it was after the Northwestern game” — a 5-3 loss on Sept. 18 — “where I just had to take some time, and I talked to Michele. As a leader, I can’t really show that frustration. That’s a lot of the responsibility I carry. I’m definitely seeing the positive side of things. It was a struggle for a little bit, but I think that needed to happen for me to be where I’m at now.”

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