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Nov. 10, 2016

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — First came the ACC championship game, then the celebration and trophy presentation, and then, finally, a memorable trip home from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

“It was the rowdiest bus ride I think I’ve ever been on,” Tara Vittese recalled Wednesday. “Everyone’s energy was just really positive, and everyone was laughing and having a good time.

“We honestly just didn’t know what to do, because we were so excited, and everyone was wearing their shirts and hats and looking at the little trophies we got, so it was an unbelievable feeling.”

Vittese, a junior midfielder, is the leading scorer for the University of Virginia field hockey team, which on Sunday afternoon defeated North Carolina 4-2 to win the ACC tournament for the first time in program history.

UVA finished the regular season in a four-way tie for third place in the ACC. Under the conference’s tiebreaking procedure, though, the Wahoos were seeded No. 6, and they became the lowest-seeded team ever to win the tournament.

The crowd at Wake Forest’s Kentner Stadium included Michelle Vittese and Carissa Vittese, who preceded their sister in head coach Michele Madison‘s program at UVA.

“I think they were more excited than I was,” Tara said. “Michelle was like, `I worked so hard for four years for this, and I never got one.’ They were really happy. They were proud of me. It was really special.”

The Cavaliers had a team meeting and recovery session Monday. The players had Tuesday off and then reconvened for practice Wednesday.

“Now we have to look forward to NCAAs,” Vittese said, “because every team has moved past their conference tournament, and this is the real deal now. NCAAs is huge.”

Assistant coach Ole Keusgen told the players “this is the time for us to be even more hungry,” Vittese said. “He always uses the term `hungry’ for winning. He just wants us to look back at the ACC championship and realize we’ve achieved something awesome, but he wants us now to look forward and build from the ACC tournament. He just wants us to make sure our minds are focused on what’s next and not what’s just happened.”

Next for Virginia (15-7) is a game in State College, Pa., against Michigan (12-7) at 2 p.m. Saturday in the NCAA tournament’s first round. The winner will meet No. 4 seed Penn State or Princeton in the quarterfinals Sunday afternoon.

UVA has already traveled to Penn State this season. The Wahoos lost 3-0 to the Nittany Lions on Aug. 28. Virginia played Princeton in the regular season, too, winning 2-0 at the University Hall Turf Field on Sept. 16.

Two days after beating the Tigers came the turning point of the Cavaliers’ season. In Charlottesville, UVA suffered a stunning defeat, losing 8-0 to Connecticut.

“That was a bit embarrassing,” Vittese said.

Since then, however, the `Hoos are 11-3, with each of those losses by a single goal. Virginia played a grueling regular-season schedule, facing 10 of the other 17 teams that made the NCAA tournament, including each of the top four seeds: No. 1 Duke, No. 2 Maryland, No. 3 Syracuse and No. 4 Penn State.

The resilience her players showed after the UConn game impressed Madison. “They didn’t [dwell] on it as something negative,” she said. “It was almost like, `I don’t ever want that feeling again in my body.’ “

From a team that lost in last year’s NCAA quarterfinals, the Cavaliers returned virtually every player, and so they were expected to be championship contenders this season. After some early struggles, they’re playing that way, led by a senior class that includes strikers Caleigh Foust and Riley Tata, midfielder Lucy Hyams, and back Emily Faught.

“Some pieces are better than I thought they’d be,” Madison said. “Not the hockey bit. Just the players’ maturity and how they’re able to deal with adversity and deal with the challenges on the field. They played under pressure [at the ACC tournament] with no problem, and that was a nice surprise.”

Vittese said the `Hoos are “definitely a different team” than the one that was 4-4 after eight games.

“I think our press is way more aggressive than it was in the beginning,” Vittese said. “I think our defense has improved tremendously on the press.”

Also, the Cavaliers’ offense is humming. UVA set an ACC tournament record with 13 goals in three games. The previous record was 10.

“Michele used the term `goal-hungry,’ and I feel like we’re just attacking more as a unit as well,” said Vittese, whose sisters will be at Penn State this weekend to support their alma mater.

The ACC offensive player of the year, Vittese has 37 points on 13 goals and 11 assists. Second on the team, with 29 points, is Hyams (nine goals, 11 assists), and Tata is third with 23 points (11 goals and one assist).

And then there’s Foust, who was named the ACC tournament’s MVP after scoring three goals in Winston-Salem. She had the game-winners against Boston College in the quarterfinals and Wake Forest in the semifinals.

Vittese and Hyams were named to the All-ACC first team this month. Vittese has been so honored three times, and Hyams has been “motivating the team and putting the team on her back, the last two years, really,” Madison said. “She’s just been a steady force.”

Foust hasn’t been as consistent. She’d look good in one game and flat in another, Madison said, but in the ACC “tournament she just rocked it, attack and defensively. That was the major difference.”

This is Madison’s 11th season with the Cavaliers, whom she guided to the NCAA semifinals in 2009 and again in 2010. Had the `Hoos won another game or two in the regular season, they might be hosting games this weekend. Still, having to travel doesn’t faze Madison.

“Maybe I’ve just been doing it so long, I’m like, `All right, those are the cards we were dealt, let’s go,’ ” she said.

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