By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the NCAA’s Division I, nearly 80 schools play field hockey, and each almost certainly would be thrilled to have Tara Vittese on its roster. Like her sisters before her, Vittese chose the University of Virginia, but what if she had ended up elsewhere?

“I try not to think about that,” head coach Michele Madison said. “I don’t know what it would be like without having the Vittese family involved in UVa field hockey.”

Vittese, a 5-10 midfielder from Cherry Hill, N.J., has made the game look easy in her first college season, though you’d never get her to admit it.

“She has no idea that she’s any good,” Madison said, laughing. “Every day she says, `I’m terrible.’ I say, `Yeah, you’re terrible,’ and her teammates are like, `Yeah, you’re terrible. Can you go work on that?’ ”

Vittese scored both of third-ranked Virginia’s goals Friday night in a 2-1 victory at Richmond, and she leads the team in goals (12), assists (14) and points (38). She’s also the leading scorer in the ACC, the premier conference in NCAA field hockey. She’s been everything the Wahoos hoped, and more.

“I’m very proud of my sister,” said former UVa great Michelle Vittese, a member of the U.S. national team.

With 23 points, sophomore striker Caleigh Foust is a distant second to Vittese in scoring for Virginia (11-3 overall, 4-0 ACC), which hosts No. 17 Wake Forest (8-5, 1-2) at 1 p.m. Sunday at the University Hall Turf Field.

A victory would assure the `Hoos at least a share of the ACC’s regular-season title — no small accomplishment for a team whose 23 players include seven freshmen and 10 sophomores. UVa has only four seniors: goalkeeper Jenny Johnstone, midfielder Jess Orrett and backs Maddie DeCerbo and Kelsey LeBlanc.

“The team works so well together,” Madison said. “That’s the secret of the success, that we came together so quickly. They believe in each other, and they want to play together.”

Leading the way has been Vittese, who’s exceptionally experienced for a college freshman. She has represented the United States at the under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels, and despite being the youngest player on the team last summer, she led the U.S.’s under-21 national team in scoring last summer at the Junior World Cup in Germany.

“It helps tremendously,” Vittese said of her international experience. “You play against the best people at that age level in the world, and you learn how other people play. I learned how to be quicker with my skills and when to use speed and when not to use speed to beat people.”

The ACC’s head coaches knew all about Vittese before she enrolled at Virginia. Most had recruited her, and they named her to the preseason All-ACC team, making her the first freshman from UVa to be so honored.

If she stays healthy and continues to progress, Madison said, Vittese is a lock to play for the U.S. national team one day. At UVa, though, Vittese is “just one of the kids,” Madison, and her attitude and work ethic are exemplary.

“For one, she practices really hard,” Madison said. “So in practice she’s giving everything, she’s learning, she’s putting it out there to really try to learn the system and the press. Every day she just gets better.”

This is Madison’s ninth year at UVa and the seventh consecutive season in which she’s had at least one Vittese on her roster. First came Michelle, a 5-3 midfielder who lettered for the `Hoos in 2008, in 2009, in 2010 and, after taking a leave of absence from school to play for the U.S. Olympic team, in 2012.

Carissa Vittese, a 5-6 midfielder, joined the program in 2010 and lettered four times. As a senior in 2013, she was named to the All-ACC second team. Michelle was a three-time All-American who has earned 103 caps for Team USA.

“They’re so lucky,” Tara said of her sisters. “They got to play together, and they’re closer because of it, I think.

“I wish I could have played with them [at Virginia]. I know that if we had played together, it would have been much better for me, because I would have learned from them. But I learned from watching them.”

She learned well. Madison remembers a summer camp at UVa that Tara attended as a girl.

“She was with the beginners, because she was so young. It had to be sixth, seventh grade,” Madison recalled. “My niece was one of the administrators, and she’s not really a hockey person. She came up to me and said, `There’s a girl on the lower field. You have to get her off the field, she’s going to hurt somebody, because she hit the ball so hard.’ ”

Neither Carissa nor Michelle was known for her scoring at UVa. “Tara has it a little more naturally,” Michelle said. “It’s an instinct for her.”

The numbers tell the story. At Camden Catholic High, where her father, Mark Vittese, is now head coach, Tara scored 166 career goals, a school record. She also played lacrosse at Camden Catholic.

“Tara’s a combination of Michelle and Carissa,” Madison said. “She’s the kind of player that can create the play, and she’d rather create the play and pass the ball than take it herself, but she can take it herself if that’s the only option available.”

At UVa, “Carissa and Michelle just didn’t look to shoot,” Madison said. “They wanted to only pass.”

As a girl, Tara traveled whenever possible with her parents to watch her sisters play for the Cavaliers. And so she needed no introduction to Charlottesville, or to the University, when Madison began recruiting her.

“I probably can’t even count on two hands how many times I’ve been down here,” Tara said. “I would say over 20 times, at least.”

Madison said: “She grew up around the program.”

Because of the family’s ties to UVa, everybody “sort of assumed I was going to attend here, just because both my sisters went here,” Tara said.

She considered other schools and waited until 2013 to commit, but “it’s kind of hard not to choose the University of Virginia,” Tara said. “It’s beautiful, and there are so many things that are good about it … Every other school I was looking at, I was comparing it to UVa, and they didn’t compare at all.”

Neither of her sisters pushed Tara toward Virginia, but “I always knew she was going to go there,” Michelle said. “I consider that my home. I grew up in Cherry Hill, but I always considered it my home. I was always so happy at UVa.”

Carissa, who graduated from the University this year, has stayed in town to work, and Michelle, who’s training with the national team in Lancaster, Pa., visits Charlottesville regularly. They follow Tara’s career closely.

“For her to add on to our legacy is an awesome thing,” Michelle said.

As excited as they may be about Tara’s feats, however, her sisters do not hesitate to critique her play.

“They’re always trying to help me improve,” Tara said. “Like after the games, they’ll text me and tell me what I need to work on, and sometimes Michelle is a little more harsh than I wish she was, but it helps.”

When Michelle competed at the Olympics in 2012, along with another UVa legend, Paige Selenski, Tara was there in London to cheer them on.

“It was extremely inspiring,” Tara recalled, “and I want to compete at that same level.”

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