Aug. 30, 2015

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — After 70 minutes of regulation on a humid afternoon, the University of Virginia field hockey team had little interest in playing as many as 30 minutes of overtime, or having to engage in a post-OT shootout.

“No one wants that,” sophomore midfielder Tara Vittese said.

The ninth-ranked Cavaliers were hot and tired and craved relief from the broiling sun Sunday. But they were also determined to walk off the University Hall Turf Field with a victory over a top-10 opponent.

“You need to keep pushing through, even though you’re so tired,” freshman midfielder Nikki Freeman said.

Three minutes and two seconds into overtime, the Wahoos (2-0) saw their perseverance rewarded. Penn State goalkeeper Jenny Rizzo blocked a shot by Vittese, but the rebound came to Freeman in front of the cage.

“I didn’t even look up,” Freeman said. “I shot, hoping it would go in.”

A few feet away, Vittese saw the ball go to Freeman. “I was just praying that it was going to go in,” Vittese said.

UVa’s prayers were answered. Freeman’s shot found its mark, securing a 4-3 comeback victory for the ‘Hoos, who in the second half had squandered a 2-0 said.

The goal was the first of her college career for the 5-foot-2 Freeman, who was not among the Cavaliers’ 11 starters when the game began. For overtime, however, each team sends out seven players, and Freeman was one of UVa head coach Michele Madison‘s choices to start the sudden-death period.

“Nikki just never stops, and she reads the game very well,” Madison said. “And in overtime you have to read the space and know when to step up, and she follows through with everything. And that’s how she got the goal. She just backed up the play.”

Virginia, which opened the season Friday night with a 6-0 rout of Drexel, went into halftime Sunday ahead 2-0, thanks to goals by freshman Greta Ell and junior Lucy Hyams. (Hyams assisted on Ell’s goal.)

Ten minutes into the second half, the score had not changed. But the Nittany Lions (0-2) swung the momentum in their direction with a three-goal flurry, and suddenly Virginia found itself trailing for the first time this season.

With 10:17 left in regulation, Madison called a timeout and gathered her players around her.

“I told them in the huddle, ‘This is what we play for. This is where we have to dig deep and play for each other and make that run. And if you can only run for six seconds, you run for six seconds and you get off and let someone else do it,’ ” Madison recalled.

“At that moment, when they looked up, I saw in their eyes they believed, ‘OK, we’re going to go for this,’ and they found a way to get that goal. They’re working hard, and the hard work paid off today.”

Vittese, a first-team All-American in 2014, was quiet for much of the game Sunday. But with the Cavaliers’ comeback hopes nearly extinguished, she produced a moment of magic, dribbling through the Penn State defense and hammering home a back-handed shot that made it 3-3 with 83 seconds left in regulation.

“I was struggling a little bit in the beginning, but the rest of the team was very positive, especially [junior midfielder] Macy Peebles,” Vittese said. “She was helping me. She was in the back of my head the entire time, just telling me to keep pushing through and be confident.

“I think once you just set your mind on what you want to do, you can accomplish it, and once I got that ball I just was like, ‘This has to go in. We can’t lose this game.’ ”

Vittese “waited for her opportunity,” Madison said. “She had a lot of minutes on the field today. She was struggling a little bit, but when it mattered, she figured out a way to get it done. And [Virginia’s players] believed they could do it, so that was key, against a very good team.”

Penn State had won three of the previous four games in the series. For a UVa team that barely missed the NCAA tournament last season, this was a victory to savor.

“It’s huge,” said Madison, who has only one senior on her roster. “A win against Penn State is always huge, especially this early.”

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