By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the selections for the NCAA tournament are announced late Sunday night, the University of Virginia field hockey team won’t have to worry about a repeat of 2014, when it was stunned not to receive an invitation.
Those Cavaliers faded late after earning a share of the ACC’s regular-season title. Virginia slumped into Selection Sunday with a 12-8 record and a four-game losing streak.
These Cavaliers are surging. They won five of their final seven regular-season games and then bolstered their NCAA credentials Thursday with a 5-1 victory over Duke in an ACC tournament quarterfinal at the University Hall Turf Field.
That marked the third time this season UVA (14-4) has scored at least five goals.
“I think everyone’s mindset was really on,” sophomore midfielder Tara Vittese said. “Everyone was focused on winning the game, and we just came out and played for 70 minutes really well.”
The victory was the Wahoos’ first in the ACC tourney since 2010. Another win Friday would strengthen their bid to host a regional during the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.
In the first semifinal, fourth-seeded Virginia faces top-seeded Syracuse (16-0) at the Turf Field at 1 p.m. This will be a rematch of their Sept. 25 clash at Syracuse, where the Orange prevailed 3-1.
“It was a close one, but we didn’t feel we put our [best] performance out,” junior midfielder Lucy Hyams said. “So we’re excited to go show them what UVA field hockey is all about.”
In the latest National Field Hockey Coaches Association rankings, Syracuse is No. 1, and Duke is No. 4, one spot ahead of UVA. But the `Hoos handled the Blue Devils during the regular season, winning 4-2 in Charlottesville on Sept. 18, and they dominated again Friday.
“I think we did an awesome job today,” said Hyams, who like Vittese was named to the All-ACC first team this week.
Vittese took four shots in the first three minutes. None found the mark, but her aggressiveness spread among the rest of the team. Less than four minutes into the game, freshman striker Greta Ell collected the first goal, and Hyams scored about 10 minutes later to put the Cavaliers ahead 2-0.
The score was unchanged at the break, but Virginia added two more goals in the first five minutes of the second half — the first by junior striker Riley Tata and the second by Vittese — to blow the game open.
Hyams’ second goal, with 21:33 remaining, made it 5-0 and effectively dashed Duke’s comeback hopes. The Blue Devils (12-6) finally broke through on a goal by Alexa Mackintire with about three minutes remaining, but the day belonged to the Cavaliers.
“They trusted each other,” Virginia head coach Michele Madison said of her players. “They passed the ball. They didn’t just over-use Tara and Lucy, and they were able to spread out and give other players an opportunity to advance the ball down the field.”
This is the first time since 2009 the `Hoos have hosted the ACC tournament, and they don’t want to squander the opportunity. Madison said she didn’t bring up the 2014 postseason with her players. She didn’t need to.
“I was glad we played the first game,” Madison said. “I think this team was just chomping at the bit, and it was good to get them out there [at 11 a.m.].
“They were just extremely excited to play at home, get their attack going, and they were able to get on the board early, and they built the momentum off of that.”
The Cavaliers played without one of their best backs, sophomore Nadine de Koning, who started all 17 regular-season games. But freshman Laura Schnatmeier filled in admirably for De Koning, who is likely to play Friday against Syracuse.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking a little bit, because Nadine’s been in that position all year, and she plays the entire game,” Vittese said. “But I think everyone, especially Laura, really stepped up. We knew we didn’t have one important piece of our team, but we played around it and we trusted everyone and we ended up getting the job done.”
Now comes a date with the nation’s top-ranked team. Syracuse has outscored opponents 64-13 this season and is a lock for a top-4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Madison said.
Hyams said: “It’s great to have [the ACC tourney] on our home turf. It gives us an extra advantage, having our family and friends here to support us.”