By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– UVA’s field hockey team entered its Oct. 21 game against Maryland at the Turf Field with a 6-8 record and a heightened sense of urgency. Nobody associated with the program said as much publicly, but the Cavaliers desperately needed to win that afternoon at the Turf Field.
Had they lost, the Wahoos would have had to capture the ACC tournament to make the NCAAs. A win would keep alive the possibility of an at-large invitation.
“Honestly, we kind of knew it, but no one really wanted to say it out loud,” Izzy McDonough said. “We didn’t want to put too much pressure on the game. We just knew we had to come out extremely strong, and we knew that Maryland obviously is a great team.”
In a Senior Day ceremony before the game, five Cavaliers were honored: McDonough, Carrera Lucas, Greta Ell, Nikki Freeman and Brooke Castleberry. Then UVA went out and upset the second-ranked Terrapins 3-1.
Five days later, in Williamsburg, Virginia closed the regular season by beating William & Mary 3-2 in double overtime. The victory was the third straight for UVA, which during one stretch of the season went scoreless in three straight games. Never, though, did the ‘Hoos splinter or stop competing.
“The team was resilient through a lot of adversity,” head coach Michele Madison said. “Through injuries and through recovery from those injuries. I think that was the key. Now we have a sustained lineup, and it’s paying off.”
The postseason starts Thursday for the Cavaliers. The No. 5 seed in the ACC tournament, Virginia (8-8) meets fourth-seeded Boston College (10-8) at 11 a.m. in Chapel Hill, N.C. The winner advances to face top-seeded North Carolina(17-0) at noon Friday.
All games in the tournament will be televised on Regional Sports Networks (NBC Sports Washington throughout Virginia.)
To be eligible for an at-large invitation to the NCAA tourney, a team must have at least a .500 record, so UVA must win Thursday for that to remain a possibility. The Cavaliers, whose RPI is 13, have played a grueling schedule that included a 2-0 loss at BC in late September.
“It’s definitely been a unique season,” said McDonough, whose given name is Isabelle. “I think what helps us is how close we are off the field, too. Even when we have lost games, just being able to talk to each other has really gotten us through it.”
The roster is dotted with players who have parents or older siblings who attended UVA. McDonough isn’t in that group, but she has her own family connection. Her sister Annie, a freshman, also starts for the Cavaliers.
“We’re very similar and very different at the same time,” Izzy said, “so I think that’s a really good balance. I think for her, coming in for her first year, it’s just nice to have someone to ask questions of — she always asks questions — and then someone to hang out with. And on the field, I think we have a really good connection and know where each other is going.”
Annie’s twin sister, Maddie, plays field hockey at Michigan State. An older sister, Sam, attended Rhode Island, and an older brother, Nick, played ice hockey at Kentucky.
The McDonoughs are from Kennett Square, Pa., outside of Philadelphia. Izzy and Annie played together for one season at Unionville High School before being reunited at UVA.
From the start, Madison said, Izzy has had a positive impact on the Cavaliers’ program.
“She’s a happy kid,” Madison said. “It’s a happy family. Very supportive. She’s always done the right thing. She’s always ready to play. She plays for the love of the game and the love of her teammates. They can go to her [for help and advice]. They always say, ‘Izzy, you always have a smile on your face.’ “
The Cavaliers use Annie mostly in a defensive role, Madison said. “Izzy plays wherever we need her. She likes to play striker better, but we’ve had to throw her in at attack [midfielder]. She’ll do anything you ask of her. She always has.”
A psychology major, McDonough spent two months this past summer studying in Siena, Italy, in that country’s Tuscany region.
“I’ve always wanted to do study abroad,” she said, “and I can’t really do it during the school year because of field hockey.”
McDonough was one of about 15 students in the program, she said. Several were from UVA, but McDonough was the only student-athlete in that group.
Her roommates include Emma Kurtz, a tennis player from Vanderbilt whose family is from Milan, Italy. Kurtz spoke Italian fluently before arriving in Siena. McDonough did not, but her background in Spanish helped her learn a new language.
“There was definitely a lot of overlap, so it made it easier for me,” McDonough said, “especially compared to some of the people that had never taken a language.”
Much of her time in Siena was spent learning Italian. But McDonough was able to experience local culture, too, most memorably the famed Palio horse races that dominate the summer calendar in Siena.
“People told me about it beforehand, that that’s Siena’s big thing,” McDonough said, “but I didn’t really understand it until literally on the first day of classes, when that was one of the first things that the teacher said: ‘Are you guys excited for the Palio?’ And I said, ‘What is this?’ “
Siena is divided into 17 districts known as contrades, “and each week [in the summer] it’s a different contrada’s turn to hang up their flags and all that stuff, and then all of the members march around the city playing music,” McDonough said. “So it’s crazy like that.
“Every morning you wake up to all different sounds of the different contradas, leading up to the horse race.”
Madison encourages her players to pursue experiences outside of field hockey in the summer.
“They grow in a different way,” Madison said. “They just mature faster, and their minds become a little more open.”
McDonough found a gym in Siena and took her stick with her to Italy. But field hockey is not popular in that country, and some locals didn’t know what to make of her stick.
“I remember one day, I searched the whole town to see if there was maybe a turf field [to practice on],” McDonough said, “and one day I finally found one, this little gated field. So I tried talking to the guy there with my bad Italian and said, ‘Could I just practice here?’ “
McDonough laughed. “He didn’t understand what a field hockey stick was. He thought it was a sword and thought I was going to destroy the field. And so they didn’t let me play there. But there was a grass field where a lot of people exercised, so I was able to bring it there some days.”
While in Europe, McDonough visited former UVA teammate Nadine de Koning in the Netherlands. The summer experience was transformative for McDonough.
“I think what I really learned from it was how to get around and travel and be very independent,” she said. “On the weekends, we did a ton of traveling, and I remember the first weekend, just learning how to be able to take the trains and get around and being able to talk to people to ask them questions. By the end of the trip, I was really able to do things on my own.
“I just remember having to come back from Italy to America on my own. I had to go to England, and then I had to take a bus in England to get to another airport. I don’t think I would have ever been able to do it at the beginning of the trip.”
In Charlottesville, she lives with two teammates, Freeman and Ell, and women’s tennis player Meghan Kelley. McDonough is a member of Delta Gamma sorority, “so I’ve been able to get the full college experience,” she said. “It’s really nice to have a lot of friends outside of [field hockey].”
McDonough, who hopes to find a job in marketing, wants to return to Europe one day. Wherever her works takes her after graduation, she plans to catch as many of Annie’s games at UVA as possible.
“I’m definitely going to be coming back often,” McDonough said.