Oct. 2, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — One day early in 2013, University of Virginia field hockey coach Michele Madison checked her in-box and found an email from Riley Tata, then a senior at Norfolk Academy. Tata was headed to a tournament in Florida, she told Madison, and hoped the Cavaliers’ coaches would be able to see her play there.

Madison’s interest was piqued, and the email was on her mind as she surveyed the proceedings at the Disney sports complex in Orlando.

“I was standing at one end of the field, and I saw this person running really fast and looking really athletic, and I said, `Is that Riley?’ ” Madison recalled this week in her University Hall office. “And it made me walk all the way to the other end of the field. I saw that she was athletic, she had speed, and she could score.”

Not long after that tourney, Tata joined Virginia’s recruiting class for 2013-14. For someone whose family has deep roots at the University — Tata’s paternal grandfather, her father and one of her sisters hold degrees from UVa — it represented the realization of a dream.

“I knew I wanted to play a sport [in college], because I knew I had the ability to, but I didn’t know it was going to be at this amazing school,” Tata said. “I love that I could go to such a strong academic school, but also a strong athletic school.”

Because of the timing of Tata’s recruitment, UVa had no scholarship available for her in 2013-14. That she was a recruited walk-on as a freshman did not deter Tata, who’s now on scholarship.

A 5-foot-7 striker from Virginia Beach, Tata scored the Wahoos’ first goal that season. Her first three shots, in fact, produced goals.

“That was exciting,” Tata recalled, “because I was really nervous, and I wasn’t a top-tier [recruit].”

She finished her first season with 11 goals. As a sophomore, Tata was Virginia’s fourth-leading scorer with 22 points, on 10 goals and two assists.

She remains a vital part of the Cavaliers’ offense as a junior. With four goals and two assists, Tata is the fourth-leading scorer for No. 4 UVa (8-1 overall, 2-1 ACC), which hosts No. 3 North Carolina (9-1, 2-1) at 4 p.m. Friday at the U-Hall Turf Field.

“She’s a garbage-goal kind of player,” Madison said, “just tips and redirections and rebounds off the goalie’s pads. So she’s really brave. She gets in there. She has great eye-hand coordination to get touches on the ball.”

Madison’s description of Tata’s game does not offend No. 21 in the slightest.

“I love a garbage goal,” Tata said, laughing. “Those are the best kind of goals for me. They’re the hardest. The goalies hate `em. You’re not doing all the fancy stuff, but you’re in there with everybody, and you’re making sure that ball gets in. I just love it. I love every part of it.”

Athletics have played a major role in her family’s life. One of her sisters, Peyton, played field hockey at Dartmouth, and the other, Carter, played field hockey at Norfolk Academy before studying architecture at UVa. Her brother, Robert, plays soccer and lacrosse at the University of Mary Washington.

Her grandfather Bob Tata starred in football and baseball at UVa. Her father, also named Bob Tata, set 17 school records as a football kicker at Navy, where his coach was George Welsh.

Welsh and Bob Tata later were reunited at UVa. While getting his law degree at Virginia, Tata served as one of Welsh’s graduate assistants.

“They’re still really close,” Riley Tata said. “We love Coach Welsh.”

Tata has an aunt and a grandmother in Stanardsville, not far from Charlottesville, and her father and her grandfather regularly attend UVa field hockey games.

“I love that they still come here and they’re very much a part of the University,” Tata said.

At various times, Tata played tennis, soccer, lacrosse, basketball and field hockey at Norfolk Academy, where her advisor was Tom Duquette, a former All-American in lacrosse at UVa.

“So I was trying every sport,” said Tata, a history major at UVa, “and it wasn’t like I was amazing at any of them. But I was athletic, and that helped a lot.”

She enjoyed moving from team to team and sport to sport during the school year.

“I thought in high school that was the best thing for me,” Tata said. “You’re putting it all out for this season, and then you get a break and you get a new sport, and you start fresh.”

At UVa, her athletic focus is singular, and that’s paying dividends for Tata.

“This is the first time that I’ve really put so much effort into one sport,” she said. “but it’s also the first time that I’ve seen myself grow continuously [in a sport].”

She’s still a relative newcomer to field hockey, and “I think that’s helped me,” Tata said, “because it’s still so much fun. I started so late that I haven’t been worn out at all. This is still fresh and new. Some girls have been playing since they were 7. Jeez, I didn’t even know what field hockey was back then.”

Tata provides more than scoring to the Cavaliers. Madison said she appreciates “the enthusiasm Riley infuses in the team. She’s just a happy kid. She’s passionate. She has good communication skills. She brings laughter and comedy, because she’s so honest and open, and some of the things she says you have to laugh at … She always looks on the bright side.”

Madison paused and then laughed. “Except if she doesn’t start. Then she gets mad.”

Tata has started six of UVa’s nine games this season. She came off the bench last Friday on the road against second-ranked Syracuse, which defeated Virginia 3-1.

That loss, Madison believes, has helped her players in their preparation for UNC.

“We took a lot from that game,” Madison said, “and I told them, `Write things down, because you’re going to look back on this game, and we’re going to take a lot that we need to move forward in the season.’ It’s just an opportunity to make changes that you don’t make when you’re winning.”

A year ago Saturday, Kelsey LeBlanc and Tata each scored a goal as No. 3 UVa upset No. 1 North Carolina 2-1 in Chapel Hill. The victory was the Cavaliers’ first over the Tar Heels since 2009, and the rematch figures to be fiercely contested Friday.

“I think all the ACC teams are rivals, but UNC is a particular rival,” Madison said.

Tata agreed. “That is going to be such a fun game. I love those types of games, because it’s like we know everything about that team, and they know everything about us.”

This is Madison’s 10th season with the `Hoos, whom she guided to the NCAA semifinals in 2009 and again in ’10.

In 2014, the Cavaliers missed the NCAA tournament for only the second time in Madison’s tenure, despite winning a share of the ACC regular-season title, and they’re determined to make amends this fall.

Tata said she loves what she’s seen from this team, which has only one senior, Taylor Brown.

“It reminds me of my first year,” she said. “The [freshmen] have just done a phenomenal job contributing to the team and doing what they need to do. They came here in shape, and they’re really adding to the team dynamic. And I don’t think we’ve had this much connection on and off the field in any other year that I’ve been here, and it just makes playing so much easier and so much better on so many levels.”

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