By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the latest Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association poll, Syracuse is No. 2, Northwestern is No. 4 and Loyola (Md.) is No. 6.
By late Sunday afternoon, No. 9 UVa will have faced all three in a season that’s not even three weeks old. Later will come games against No. 1 North Carolina, No. 3 Maryland, No. 5 Duke, No. 8 Penn State, No. 13 Boston College, No. 15 Notre Dame and No. 17 Princeton.
“It’s a tough start,” Julie Myers said Wednesday night at the University Hall Turf Field, “and we always say it’s make or break right out of the gate.”
This is Myers’ 19th season as head coach at her alma mater, and in each of the first 18 the Wahoos advanced to the NCAA tournament. Until this year, however, none of Myers’ teams — or any of their predecessors in a program that dates to 1976 — had started a season with back-to-back defeats.
Virginia opened Feb. 9 with a 13-12 loss to Northwestern in Kennesaw, Ga. Six days later, in the Cavaliers’ home opener, they fell 16-12 to Loyola. And so their game with unranked Richmond took on extra significance for the `Hoos, who ran away to an 18-9 victory Wednesday night at the U-Hall Turf Field.
“It definitely is a weight lifted off our shoulders,” said junior midfielder Courtney Swan, who led UVa with a career-high five goals and also had an assist.
Attacker Liza Blue, a redshirt junior, contributed four goals and an assist against UR (1-2).
“We knew we played two top teams, but it was pretty disappointing,” Blue said of Virginia’s 0-2 start. “We knew we needed this win tonight and luckily kind of took it to them. So it was a good confidence-booster.”
Myers said: “I think we have lots of momentum to build on, and we’re going to have our hands full on Sunday.”
At 1 p.m., Virginia hosts Syracuse (3-0) at Klöckner Stadium. This will be their first meeting as ACC rivals.
“We know our job is going to be huge on Sunday,” Myers said, “but I feel you’re going to have to beat them early or beat them late, so we might as well try to do it now.”
In 2013, UVa advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion North Carolina. The Cavaliers returned a strong core from that team, so Myers’ lineup includes many familiar names. But much has changed in her program.
“I think the philosophy and the style are completely different,” said Swan, an All-ACC performer in 2013. “We’re playing fast, we’re playing hard, we’re taking chances, and I think that’s something really different. Last year was more methodical. That’s definitely something that bodes well for our personnel, so I’m excited.
“If you look at all the top teams, that’s what they’re doing. They’re run and gun. We need to get 30-, 40-plus shots and pressure on defense to create those opportunities, get tons of turnovers. That’s the only way to compete.”
In 2013, Virginia averaged 25.1 shots and 10.5 goals per game. Through three games this season, the `Hoos are averaging 33.7 shots and 14 goals. In their eighth straight victory over the Spiders, the Cavaliers took 35 shots.
“We’re shooting more,” Myers said Wednesday night. “Instead of trying to play and win a perfect game, we’re trying to take some more chances, generate some more looks. The theory is, the more you shoot, the more you’re going to score, and that’s certainly something that we’ve been working on. I think that we could have probably shot 20 more times if we didn’t turn the ball over tonight, but I feel like we’re playing fast, we’ve got the kids in the right spot. We’re inches away from kind of sealing the deal, and we’ve got a few months to figure that out.”
Scoring threats abound for UVa. They include Swan (team-leading 14 points), Blue (10 points), senior Maddy Keeshan (seven points), junior Morgan Stephens (seven points), junior Casey Bocklet (six points) and senior Ashlee Warner (three points).
“Liz has done a nice job,” Myers said Wednesday night. “She’s far and away playing better than she’s ever played. She made some big plays out of the crease tonight too, and that was kind of the next step to her game, and she’s showing us that she wants to do more and she’s capable of it.”
Like Colgan, Blue did not play a full season in 2013. She contracted mononucleosis coming out of preseason last year and missed the Cavaliers’ first seven games. Blue still finished the season with 16 goals and an assist.
“It feels good to be healthy and feeling good from Day One,” Blue said.
Blue also has played field hockey at UVa — she started three games for Michele Madison’s team in 2010 — but her focus now is lacrosse.
“She’s just smooth and efficient,” Myers said. “She doesn’t take any extra steps. She’s got great speed, and she’s deceiving. She’s not the tallest, strongest kid that you’re going to line up next to, but she’s certainly deadly. She’s just great to have on our team.”
That team, Myers said last week, has Final Four potential. Her opinion hasn’t changed since then.
“It’s a process and it’s a long season,” Myers said. “I think we have the speed, the right kids, the right mojo, the right energy. We just need to make sure that we keep our energy up no matter what the game situation is.”