By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Win Thursday in Chapel Hill, N.C., and UVa may well advance to the NCAA women’s lacrosse tournament for the 18th consecutive season.
Lose Thursday, and the Cavaliers will finish with a losing record for the first time since 1984.
The stakes for the Wahoos in the ACC tournament’s first round could not be much higher. At 1 p.m. Thursday, fifth-seeded UVa (8-8) takes on fourth-seeded Duke (11-4), with the winner advancing to meet top-seeded Maryland (17-0) in the first semifinal Friday in Chapel Hill.
In their regular-season game, the Blue Devils defeated the Cavaliers 13-7 on March 23 at Klöckner Stadium.
Virginia coach Julie Myers’ challenge is to have her players “in the right mindset … without putting too much pressure on them,” she said. “That is the trick.”
Myers acknowledged that her team has struggled in pressure situations, “when games are tight and we’re losing by one.” The `Hoos went 0-4 in one-goal games during the regular season, losing to Syracuse, Penn State, North Carolina and Johns Hopkins.
“We’ve certainly had our opportunities to win those games down the stretch,” Myers said. “I would say handling pressure’s not one of our strong suits right now, so we need to make sure they’re feeling good enough and ready enough and prepared enough to start the game strong and just kind of keep it rolling from there.”
Early in the season, the Cavaliers went through a two-week stretch in which they dropped four consecutive games, starting with a 10-9 loss to Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Losses to Maryland (18-10), Penn State (15-14) and North Carolina (8-7) followed.
Had the `Hoos defeated the Orange, Myers said, they might have fared better against Penn State and in subsequent games.
“I think the Maryland game, we probably weren’t going to win that at that time of the season,” Myers said, “but we were so close with some of the top, top teams in the country. And I just think that if we got some of the confidence from beating them instead of losing by one, that makes all the difference in the world.”
This is Myers’ 18th year as head coach at her alma mater, where her record is 253-99. Under Myers, the Cavaliers have been NCAA champions once (2004) and runners-up six times (1996, ’98, ’99, 2003, ’05 and ’07).
Never before during her tenure have the `Hoos been in this situation, needing a victory in the ACC tournament to have the .500 record required to be considered for the NCAAs.
“We’re definitely surprised by it,” Myers said. “Back in September, October, and even in the preseason, we were like, `We’re definitely a talented team.’ What we didn’t anticipate was tearing two ACLs and having another starter break her hand.”
That happened March 16 during Virginia’s 9-7 win over Princeton at Klöckner Stadium. Midfielders Maddy Fabiani and Sally Jentis suffered season-ending knee injuries, and goalie Kim Kolarik broke her hand. Another starter, defender Kelsey Gahan, hurt her knee a week later and hasn’t played since.
“Some of the kids that got hurt were the heart and soul of the practices, the kids that went hard, the kids that lit the fire, the kids that never give up,” Myers said. “And I think then our practices got a little bit flatter, because we were missing some of that energy from the injured kids.”
Also, Myers said, the “first three weeks after kids tear ACLs, everyone thinks everyone’s going to tear an ACL every time they get bumped or fall. So we had to kind of get over that hurdle [and realize] that it’s not every time you fall that you get injured.”
Junior Liz Colgan started at goalie in the absence of Kolarik, who returned for UVa’s regular-season finale, a 10-5 victory over Virginia Tech last Wednesday night. Kolarik is one of the few seniors to start regularly for Virginia this season, along with attacker Caroline McTiernan and defenders Megan Dunleavy and Lelan Bailey.
If the `Hoos win Thursday, they will be assured of leaving Chapel Hill with no worse than a 9-9 record. Given the Cavaliers’ high strength-of-schedule rating, Myers believes that would probably get them in the NCAA tournament, which has expanded from 16 to 26 teams this season.
Of the top seven teams in the latest IWLCA coaches’ poll, Virginia has played six: No. 1 Maryland, No. 3 UNC, No. 4 Northwestern, No. 5 Syracuse, No. 6 Penn State and No. 7 Duke.
In its regular-season game with Duke, UVa trailed by only two goals with nine minutes remaining. But the Blue Devils closed on a 4-0 run to win going away.
“We had lost enough games that we let a little bit of doubt creep in,” Myers said, and that contributed to Virginia’s late-game woes. “And then they would score. So every time we made a mistake it seemed like they went down and were able to capitalize.
“It was also one of our first games without Kim in the goal. Now Liz had just played in the game before that, which was JMU, and we had won 10-3. So she did a great job. But the chips weren’t down. She never really had to kind of keep everyone together when our backs were against the wall and we were losing a game. And I think what we lost a little bit in that Duke game was Kim’s ability to bring everybody in and talk through some things. It was Liz’s first time in the fire where it was too hot.”