By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Olympians Paige Selenski and Michelle Vittese are back, and so, it appears, is the University of Virginia field hockey team.

Selenski and Vittese withdrew from the University in 2011-12 to focus on their bids to make the U.S. Olympic team, a decision that paid off for them. Both made the team and competed in London this summer.

“It was awesome,” Selenski said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Without their two best players, the Cavaliers struggled in 2011. After advancing to the NCAA semifinals in 2009 and ’10, Virginia finished 8-12 last year. Not since 2005 had the Wahoos failed to earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

“That was a really tough season, mentally and physically,” junior Elly Buckley recalled. “We had so many tough games.”

Selenski, a forward, and Vittese, a midfielder, received a warm greeting when they rejoined the team this month after returning from London.

“We’re all such close friends,” Buckley said. “They do so much on the field and off the field, so it’s awesome.”

Neither fifth-year senior took part in preseason practice, and Selenski and Vittese weren’t cleared to play until Virginia’s second game, a 3-2 loss at No. 9 Penn State. In eighth-ranked UVa’s home opener, though, their impact was enormous.

Selenski had three goals and two assists Wednesday evening in a 6-1 rout of Richmond before a University Hall Turf Field crowd that included members of Virginia’s football, wrestling, men’s basketball and women’s basketball teams.

“We’re going to grow game by game,” said Selenski, a three-time All-American. “The team’s new, and Michelle and I have just been put back into this, and the girls aren’t used to playing with us yet. So it’s going to take a couple games to get back into the groove and really get the feeling of playing with each other again.

“But I think each game we’re growing, and we’re growing minute by minute as a team, and I think that’s really good, and that will good for us going into our season.”

Virginia coach Michele Madison said her other players have to get used to the speed at which Selenski and Vittese play.

“We want the team to catch up with them, not vice versa,” Madison said with a smile.

Against the Spiders (1-1), Sophomore forward Rachel Sumfest and junior midfielders Hadley Bell and Carissa Vittese (Michelle’s sister) added a goal each for the `Hoos (2-1).

“The potential’s there,” Madison said. “We have to work a lot harder. We have to concentrate more. You have to play for 70 minutes. Those are really the goals: to play your game plan for 70 minutes, compete for 70 minutes, work hard for each other for 70 minutes. That’s what we’re trying to build up to do, and it takes a lot of discipline and focus to do that.”

Sumfest is among the second-year Cavaliers who, until this season, had not played with Selenski and Vittese. That group also includes midfielders Jess Orrett, Kelsey LeBlanc and Katie Robinson, back Maddie DeCerbo and goalie Jenny Johnstone.

“We know them off the field pretty well, just from coming back and visiting,” Selenski said. “They’re hard workers and they’re good players. We have a lot of skill on this team, so we’ve just got to learn to put it together and just be able to click as a group.”

The Cavaliers’ leading scorer in 2011 was Buckley, an All-ACC selection at forward in each of her first two seasons. She’s now at back, where Virginia’s other starters include her classmate Chloe Pendlebury, who like Buckley is from Australia.

Buckley, Virginia’s second-leading scorer in 2010, has been battling a knee injury, but with help from Pendlebury, she’s adjusting to her new role. Against UR, Buckley had three assists, and Pendlebury had two.

“Any time you have a backfield player that can distribute the ball and find open players in big spaces, it’s a threat,” Madison said. “It helps spread the field out, because [opponents] have to defend that, and then you have more space to do your build-up.”

The home opener was the first of three straight games at the Turf Field for the Cavaliers. Virginia hosts Towson at 3 p.m. Friday and No. 3 Old Dominion at 1 p.m. Sunday.

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