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Aug 28, 2013

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – When the No. 7 Virginia field hockey team takes to the pitch at Turf Field on Friday, Aug. 30 in a 6 p.m. game against Louisville, it will be a different squad than the one that advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament in 2012. The team only graduated five seniors in May, but those players included four-time All-American Paige Selenski and 2012 US Field Hockey National Player of the Year Michelle Vittese.

Still, much of the 2012 squad does remain in tact with an experienced eight-player senior class that includes three-time All-American Elly Buckley.

“The senior class has embraced the leadership role and are determined to make the unique rollercoaster experiences they’ve endured pay off,” said head coach Michele Madison. “The fourth-years earned a trip to the Final Four their freshmen year and were gaining momentum to compete for the national championship when Pagie and Michelle took the year off to chase their Olympic dream. The good thing is the two made the Olympic squad. The flip side was the team was without two of their critical teammates. The 2012 season turned into a `catch up for lost time’ season. The 2013 team has recommitted to the team approach and will depend on the whole being stronger than the sum of its parts.”

In speaking of her vision for the upcoming year, Madison stresses a renewed emphasis on maximizing and integrating individual strengths. Balanced scoring and a high- pressure defense will be the strong performance indicators.

“We have been experimenting with new dimensions of our system to create more attack,” Madison said. “The returners in the front six have played at least four of the six positions. Hadley Bell has actually played all six in her first three years. She is a versatile player and extremely fit. Chloe Pendlebury, also a three-year contributor, and Bell are critical pieces in holding structure in our free flowing attack. Everybody knows we like to drive tempo, so the more players contribute, the better. We recruit players to play, not to sit the bench. They have to earn it and this year’s class is on pace for doing just that.”

Buckley comes into the season tied for seventh in career points (133) in the Cavalier record book, also ranking eighth in career goals (53) and tenth in career assists (27). The preseason All-ACC selection has a chance to become just the 10th player in ACC history to be a four-time all-conference honoree.

“Elly, who played defense last season, is an exciting and creative player,” Madison said. “When she has the ball and you are on the field, you better be ready for a pass. She can play anywhere but shines closer to the goal.”

Buckley may return to the sweeper position again this season or it may be fellow senior Carissa Vittese that moves into the backfield.

“The sweeper position has become a playmaker with the self-start rule,” Madison said. “If I were playing today, I would want to play sweeper. It’s the quarterback of the backfield on attack and defense. Carissa’s skill can ignite an attack. She can play the big ball, the aerial or build the play in tight space. Her vision is amazing.”

Vittese, who had a strong showing during the summer while training with the US Under-21 team, is also a true student of the game.

“Carissa can talk the game better than anyone her age,” Madison said. “She grew up in a hockey family and I know for sure the dinner table conversation revolves around the game.”

Seniors Sarah Weber and Elizabeth Hanks will also be called upon to contribute this season.

“Both have had supporting roles in the past and are willing and able to do what ever it takes to help the team.”

The Cavalier backfield will be the most experienced group on the field.

“Defensively, we have a lot of minutes returning in the backfield with Katie Robinson, Maddie DeCerbo, Lane Smith and Kelsey LeBlanc,” Madison said. “Five of our hardest workers, including goalkeeper Jenny Johnstone, are featured in the defense. They do not have an off button. Katie is a `coaches dream’, as any coach that works with her agrees. She gives you every bit inside of her every minute, every day. She was voted practice player of the year by her teammates three times. Lane brings consistency and can fill in at any side-back position or sweeper.”

LeBlanc, one of the most skilled defenders on the team, has returned and is “ready to rock and roll.” LeBlanc missed the majority of the 2012 season recovering from injury, returning in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

“Kelsey had the longest way to come after missing almost a whole year before finally getting to play at the end of last season when she still wasn’t her-100 percent,” Madison said. “She had trained with a vengeance to get her game back. She attended preseason camp fit and has progressed tremendously. It was not a surprise to me. I wouldn’t expect anything less from her and she does it all with a smile.”

The defense will be playing in front of All-ACC goalkeeper Johnstone. The junior is beginning her third season as the Cavaliers’ number one goalie. Sophomore Rebecca Holden, who toured Holland as the goalkeeper for the US U-19 national team in the spring, will challenge for playing time.

“Jenny is very athletic, reads the shot and is very quick to get to the shot,” Madison said. “When she is aggressive, she is at her best. She loves playing, she loves to compete and she hates getting scored on. Both goalies in the spring had solid performances. Jenny has the edge at this point, but Becca and Jenny combine to make a great goalie team.”

The Cavaliers will also have nine first-years on the squad with all of them having a chance to playing time.

“Bottom line, half have to contribute every game,” Madison said. “We need one or two on the front line and two in the midfield every game. Caleigh Foust, Riley Tata, Katie Kelly, Megan Kelly, Macy Peebles and Emily Faught all have their moments. Jeannie Blackwood is growing pretty quickly in preseason, so she could be looked at to get minutes in the backfield. They are all jockeying for position. There is no clear leader. Right now they have put themselves in position to get an opportunity to show how they can help. When their legs, hands and brain are in sync, they are fun to watch.”

The one freshman that has already won a spot is Lucy Hyams. The midfielder played this summer at the Junior Worlds for the England U21 squad. In addition to playing in the midfield, she also will contribute on the penalty corner.

The Cavaliers, who are ranked No. 7 in the NFHCA preseason poll, will have a challenging schedule ahead. Virginia opens the season on Friday, Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. when they host future-ACC opponent Louisville.

“Louisville was on the schedule before the news was out that they would join the ACC, so it is funny how it worked out,” Madison said. “They have been a strong competitor in the Big East and have been on the tournament bubble every year and just falling short on getting through. Louisville looked overseas to close that gap. Coach Sowry will come to Charlottesville having them ready to play and prove they belong in the ACC. We will have our hands full with this exciting opener.”

The Cavaliers will also host No. 6 Penn State in the opening weekend, with UVa’s first top-10 showdown of the season taking place on Sunday, Sept. 1 at 1 p.m. In all, Virginia will face nine teams ranked in the preseason top-20 including all six ACC foes. All seven ACC teams open the season ranked in the top 20 with five teams (North Carolina, Maryland, Syracuse, Virginia and Duke) ranked in the top 10.

“The ACC is an amazing conference,” Madison said. “With the addition of Syracuse, three of last year’s Final Four teams in the ACC now. It is a brutal and grueling schedule. We have to keep our focus in the present and just chip away game by game.

“I am so excited to see what this team can do!”

Admission is free for all regular-season games at University Hall Turf Field.

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