By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Ten days ago, the University of Virginia field hockey team clinched the ACC’s regular-season title with a 2-1 victory at Louisville.
Afterward, the Cavaliers gathered for a celebratory group photo. It required a do-over.
“The photographer had to tell the team, `Can we see some happy faces? You just won the regular-season championship,’ ” recalled Michele Madison, UVA’s head coach. “Because the first picture had no smiles. They were just like, business as usual.”
A regular-season title in a conference as rugged as the ACC is no small feat, but Virginia has loftier goals. “We’re not done,” freshman back Rachel Robinson said.
The Wahoos are looking to win the ACC tournament for the second straight year. Then, they hope, will come a run to the NCAA tourney’s Final Four. Both events, coincidentally, will be held at Trager Stadium in Louisville.
“That’s the goal,” Madison said, “to get really familiar with the city of Louisville.”
As the top seed in the ACC tournament, UVA (15-3 overall) earned a bye into the semifinals. At noon Friday, Virginia will face fourth-seeded Wake Forest or fifth-seeded North Carolina. The ACC championship game is set for Sunday at 1 p.m.
Before the season, in a vote of ACC head coaches, UVA was picked to finish fifth in the conference. That projection has motivated her team all season, said Madison, who’s in her 12th season at UVA.
Freshman midfielder Pien Dicke (pronounced PEEN DICK-uh) is among the Cavaliers eagerly awaiting the start of the postseason.
“Personally, I prefer tough games, the hard games, instead of [one-sided victories],” Dicke said, “because we won a lot of games by a lot of goals. I don’t like those games, because it’s a little boring.”
On a UVA team led by senior midfielder Tara Vittese, a virtual lock to be a first-team All-American for the fourth straight year, three freshmen play regularly: Robinson, Dicke and striker Makayla Gallen.
Robinson and Dicke have started all 18 games for fourth-ranked Virginia.
“I don’t think Rachel has been subbed all year,” Madison said. “Maybe once. Pien needs breaks, because she puts out such a high-energy effort in a different kind of role, but she’s out for two minutes and then goes back in.”
Robinson, who’s from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, has two goals and five assists in a defensive role this season. That she ended up in Charlottesville was no surprise. Her sister Katie, now the head coach at Langley High in Northern Virginia, lettered four times in field hockey (2010-13) at UVA.
“Just a very competitive family,” Madison said.
Robinson, who also starred in softball and basketball at Donegal High School, has another sister, Amanda, who plays field hockey at Michigan State.
UVA wasn’t the only college she considered, “but just coming back here, it felt like home,” said Robinson, who’s studying kinesiology in the Curry School of Education.
Dicke, who’s unsure what she’ll major in, followed a less conventional path to the University. She’s from Den Haag (The Hague) in the Netherlands, a nation where field hockey — both men’s and women’s — is immensely popular. She’s a veteran of the Dutch junior national team at the U16 and U18 levels.
From the first time she saw videotape of Dicke, Madison said, “I knew she was special.”
Virginia has had numerous players from Holland during Madison’s tenure, including two of the team’s other starters this fall: sophomore Dominique van Slooten and senior Nadine de Koning. Madison wasn’t sure if Dicke would be interested in joining them.
“I don’t know if there’s even been [another] under-18 national team player in America from Holland,” Madison said.
Asked why she left home to attend college in the United States, Dicke said, “I think for me, it was more that I wanted to combine field hockey and school, because in Holland it’s a lot harder to combine it at a high level. You go to a club to play field hockey, and you go to university or to college [to study], and it doesn’t work together with each other. So you get a lot of conflicts with practices and then going to school.”
After seriously considering Wake Forest and Penn State, Dicke chose UVA.
“Obviously the field hockey’s very good, and the college is very good, but also the community,” said Dicke, whose primary language is Dutch but who speaks English well.
“When I came here, it felt like this can be my second home. I needed to have a new home here, and I felt like everybody here was so nice to me, and I was sure I was going to be happy here.”
Like Dicke, Robinson came to UVA with international experience. She’s a member of the United States’ U19 national team.
“I recruited Rachel for her talent,” Madison said, “but also for her leadership skills and her competiveness.”
Robinson and Dicke formed an immediate bond on the field. At 5-7, Robinson is a much more physical player than her classmate, but the 5-4 Dicke plays with an edge that belies her small stature. She’s also an exceptional athlete.
“She’s so fast,” Madison said. “She steals the ball so quickly and makes her move so quickly that the umpires just don’t see it, and they call her for fouls all the time. And I’m like, `She didn’t touch anyone. She just stole the ball in a way you’ve never seen before.’ ”
Vittese, who stands 5-10, leads the Cavaliers in goals (24) and points (62), and she’s tied with de Koning for the lead in assists (14).
“She’s a great player,” Dicke said of Vittese, “and I can learn a lot from her. It was easy for me to connect with her. I think we found each other pretty fast, the same as I found [Rachel] on the field.”
Dicke, second on the team in goals (21) and points (48), is fourth in assists (six). In goals per game, Vittese (1.33) ranks second and Dicke (1.17) fourth nationally.
“We feel very fortunate to have that 1-2 punch,” Madison said.
Three of Dicke’s goals came on Sept. 10 in a 6-1 win over Michigan State in Norfolk, with the Robinson family watching from the stands. For Robinson, competing against her sister Amanda was awkward.
“I never want to play her again,” Rachel said. “I want her to do well, but obviously I want my team to win.”
“I thought it was fun,” Dicke said.
“Fun for you,” Robinson answered.
In Dicke’s UVA debut, Aug. 25 against Fairfield, she scored three goals. Even so, Dicke said, she needed time to not only fit in with her new team, but to adjust to the American style of field hockey.
“It’s way different,” Dicke said. “I don’t know how to explain it. Maybe, people here are more physical, and I think because in Holland you start playing field hockey when you’re 4 years old, everybody’s very technical. I think I had to get used to that. I’m small, and my arms are small.”
Dicke laughed. “I started lifting. I’m getting bigger arms already, but I still have to get there.”
Her talent has long been evident. Dicke was only 15 when she began training alongside grown women, some as old as 28, for an elite club in Holland — Haagsche Delftsche Mixed (HDM).
“I would say they treated me like their own kid,” Dicke said. “I had a great team there, and I have a great team here.”
Her family flew over to visit Dicke in Charlottesville this month, and she’ll see her parents and her sister and her brothers in the Netherlands during UVA’s winter break for the holidays.
In the meantime, Dicke’s focus is on helping the ‘Hoos achieve their postseason goals. To say Madison is delighted to have Dicke at UVA would be a colossal understatement.
“If she’s not freshman of the year in the nation, I don’t know who would be,” Madison said.