By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The NCAA field hockey tournament began last week with 18 teams, each hoping to come away with the sport’s biggest prize. Happy endings, though, are elusive in the postseason.
“Only one team wins in the end, right?” Virginia head coach Michele Madison said.
Yes, and this year that team will not be the Cavaliers. Third-seeded UVA lost 2-1 to ACC rival Duke in the NCAA quarterfinals Sunday on a sparkling fall afternoon at University Hall Turf Field.
Virginia decisively won its first two meetings with the Blue Devils, defeating them 4-2 during the regular season and 5-1 in the ACC tournament. But Madison reminded her players before Sunday’s game that those results would have little-to-no bearing on the Cavaliers’ third encounter with Duke.
“I told them the only mistake we could make today is to think that we’re going to beat [the Blue Devils] just because we beat them two other times,” Madison said. “You don’t get quality points going into the tournament, you have to do it again, and every time it gets harder.”
Duke (14-6) advances to meet No. 2 seed North Carolina in the NCAA semifinals Friday in Ann Arbor, Mich. UVA ended its 10th season under Madison with a 15-6 record.
The Wahoos were looking to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 2010. They fell one game shy of their goal, but they have ample reason to be proud of their season.
In 2014, Virginia won a share of the ACC regular-season title but faded late and was bypassed by the NCAA selection committee. The `Hoos were determined to avoid a similar fate this season, and they succeeded with a roster that included only one senior.
“I believe they gave it their all, and I’m very proud of every one of them and how much they’ve grown in the three months we’ve been together,” Madison said.
After the disappointment of 2014, this was an important year for the program, goalkeeper Rebecca Holden said Sunday.
“Last year we experienced a lull about halfway through the season after we played UNC, where we got maybe a bit too comfortable with our standing and how we were performing, and unfortunately we didn’t make the tournament,” Holden said.
“But this year, right from the start, we knew that we had to take every single game [seriously], stay in the present and not look too forward to the tournament.”
In its ACC tournament game with Duke, Virginia struck first, getting a goal from freshman striker Greta Ell less than four minutes into the game, and led 2-0 at halftime.
The Devils played with much more energy in the first 35 minutes Sunday and were rewarded for their effort. A goal by junior striker Caleigh Foust, off an assist from Brown, pulled UVA to 1-1 about 10 minutes into the game, but Duke answered with 3:13 left in the opening half.
That was the last goal the Blue Devils needed. The `Hoos applied intense pressure offensively for most of the second half, but Duke goalkeeper Lauren Blazing yielded nothing against a barrage of shots.
Even as the clock ticked down, though, the Cavaliers remained confident the tying goal was imminent. Of Virginia’s 17 regular-season games, 10 were decided by a single goal, so Madison’s team was accustomed to playing in pressure situations.
“We’ve had games where we’ve been down and scored the tying goal with less than a minute left,” said Holden, a redshirt junior. “And so throughout that entire half, I had faith that our team was going to stick together, pull it out, put something in and take care of the play in front of us.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t put it in the net. But in terms of effort and just putting it out all out there on the field in the second half, I don’t think we could have asked for more.”
Madison said: “We clearly dominated the second half but just didn’t put it away, which is not normal for us.”
After the final horn sounded, Virginia’s players huddled with the coaching staff, then jogged over to the stands to thank fans for their support.
“It’s just a tough way to lose after such a great season,” Madison said.
For the team’s lone senior, Taylor Brown, the game was her last as a Cavalier. Brown, a graduate of The Covenant School in Charlottesville, started nine games this season and 22 for her career.
“Every year she got better,” Madison said. “She always had the speed and competitiveness. It just took her time to get stronger and get up to the Division I level of the ACC, and she was able to do that.”
Brown will be missed, but the rest of the team is expected back in 2016, including the top six scorers: Tara Vittese (29 points), Riley Tata (31), Lucy Hyams (30), Ell (22) and Foust (18). The future looks promising for the `Hoos.
“We’re only graduating one senior, and we’re bringing in a lot of very strong first-years,” Holden said. “The team chemistry this year has been the best in the four years that I’ve been here. So I’m looking forward to my fifth year with a team that’s already so strong and so united. It’s going to be very exciting.”
Madison wasn’t ready Sunday to turn the page on 2015. Still, she acknowledged that the `Hoos will “start from a solid place [next year], and everyone will get better. Skill-wise we’ll get better, and they have so much experience now.”
She’ll be delighted to welcome back so many familiar players. This has been one of her favorite groups to coach, Madison said.
“That’s why [the loss is] even harder,” she said, “because I just didn’t want it to end.”